Caitlin Quinlan


Rocks – first look review

A young girl must become breadwinner when abandoned by her mother in Sarah Gavron’s winning ensemble drama.

Filmmaker Sarah Gavron continues to make impassioned work about and alongside women in London with her new film Rocks, a sorrowful yet full-hearted depiction of a young girl at breaking point.

For Shola (Bukky Bakray), or Rocks as she is know, best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) and the rest of the girls in their inner circle, the first day back at their east London school after the summer holidays offers few surprises. On Rocks’ return home, however, a brief note and an envelope with a small amount of cash inside is all her mother has left behind for her and younger brother Emmanuel. Both children must then deal with their mother’s abandonment, and not for the first time in their lives. Yet the question of her return seems far more uncertain on this occasion.

Rocks earned her nickname defending her best friend. She is clearly used to protecting those she loves, but the challenge of coping as the sole provider for Emmanuel and herself begins to prove too much. Sumaya offers support but Rocks’ stubborn pride and steadfast emotional barriers won’t allow her in. The distance that grows between them only serves to harm Rocks’ further, as she skips school, becomes friends with a troubling new girl and dodges the social workers hovering at her front door.

The film boasts an impressive cast of fresh, young, non-professional actors who bring nothing but sincerity and warmth to the narrative, and Gavron documents their chemistry with ease and gravity. Observations of the friendship group at their most relaxed take place on a rooftop somewhere overlooking the city, with one scene in particular beautifully scored to Kokoroko’s Abusey Junction – poetic jazz that balances the soulful with the melancholy just as Gavron’s film does. D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu is a particular highlight as young Emmanuel, so charming, witty and with an endearing affection for everything around him that couldn’t possibly have been scripted. The relationships serve to elevate the solemnity of the tragedy, bouncing lights in the deepest darkness, trying to keep Rocks’ safe in their glow.

There is something joyous about the exclusivity of the girls’ jokes and their shorthand with one another, all wrapped up in the slickness of London slang that invites those familiar inside and keeps all others firmly at arm’s length. Even the unspoken words, the glances that cut so cleanly between the characters reveal depths of intimacy and camaraderie. Examples include the flash of embarrassment on Sumaya’s face during a dance class, the “I’ll do it if you do it” look shared between teenage best friends, and the downcast eyes of young girls powerless to help a situation that is so much bigger than them.

“Close your eyes, think of everything happy and keep breathing in and out,” Emmanuel says to Rocks in a moment of desperation, with a tender wisdom beyond his years. It is all she can do in the minefield of her daily life. It’s a film of great empathy and love, as Gavron champions and protects the sheer resilience on show.

Published 6 Sep 2019

Tags: Sarah Gavron Toronto Film Festival

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