Director: Sarah Gavron. Screenplay: Theresa Ikoko, Claire Wilson
Review by Jonny Wright
Shola (aka Rocks) and her younger brother Emmanuel are brought up by their troubled Nigerian single mother, Funke. When her mother goes, leaving a note and a bit of cash on the table, teenage Shola is forced to step into her mother’s shoes and fend for herself and her younger brother. The charm of Rocks is that despite this very bleak set up, this is in no way ‘struggle porn’. The warmth of the story, the characters and the performances mean you don’t walk away wanting to stick your head in a gas oven. However, the movie doesn’t shy away from very real dangers in a capital city sleepwalking into a Dickensian tale of two cities. London is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but for many Londoners, that wealth is impossible to tap into. Much like writer Theresa Ikoko’s fantastic play Girls (about the Chibok schoolgirls), Rocks manages to make a very dark situation a really enjoyable watch.
The freedom given to the actors to weave in improvisational moments allows for a naturalism rarely seen with such a young cast, and the vibrancy and authenticity of their performances shines through. The most heart-wrenching moments revolve around the resilient but vulnerable Bukky Bakray as Shola, trying to shelter her brother from their mother’s disappearance and mental illness, whilst often forgetting that she herself is still a child. We are torn, wanting them to stay off the radar of meddling middle–class friends, nosey neighbours, teachers and social services until their mother returns, while knowing that this may not be for the best in the long run.
Rocks shares a youthful energy and humour with its East London counterpart Kidulthood (2006) and with its transatlantic cousin Kids (1995), but with tour de force performances by young women at the heart of it. It’s refreshing to see a female-centric coming-of-age story which isn’t centred on teenage angst or how to impress a boy. Shola dreams of becoming a ‘billionaire’ as a make-up artist, but the make-up she does for 50p a pop at school seems to be about girls looking good for themselves (and Instagram) rather than chasing any princes.
Whereas Eastenders seems stuck in a pre-white flight era, Rocks perfectly encapsulates East London now. Doing make-up for a white friend, Shola says, ‘I don’t have stuff in your colour cos I never get white clients’, and a boy she meets says he is ‘Chinese, Jamaican, Ukrainian, English. They call me the melting pot, fam.’ The Danny Dyers have long since moved to Essex – this is the new East End, and it’s beautiful. From the ‘white’ classmate who tells of her Gypsy grandparents dying in a concentration camp, to a Somali engagement party, to a heart-breaking scene where Shola calls her Yoruba-speaking grandmother in Nigeria to ask her if she’s heard from her mother, Rocks provides an intimate exploration of a diverse East London which has been there for years but is rarely shown on screen. What unites all the characters, as the film’s climax takes us out of the city to grapple with the question of ‘black flight’, is that they are all Londoners. As a portrait of our diverse metropolis, Rocks absolutely rocks.