Through intermittent snapchat clips and sassy teenage banter, an affecting drama about abandonment unveils itself. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, Suffragette) takes the script by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, realizing it into an all too real-life state of affairs of a broken working-class home.
Aspiring teenager’s Shola aka Rocks (Bukky Bakry) finds her world comes crushing down when an absconding parent leads her to take on responsibilities way beyond her years. A domino effect of irrepressible situations, finds Rocks at just sixteen, solely looking after her younger brother Emmanuel. Her widowed mother plagued by long-term mental health has once again taken off, leaving just a measly note and a handful of cash. Rocks dutifully takes on her obligations, as she has done before, attempting to mother Emmanuel and simultaneously have a semblance of teenage life. Options become increasingly limited, as money runs out and social services come knocking on the door. Rocks dreads being separated from Emmanuel and has them fleeing, resorting to couch surfing at friends’ houses and stealing money.
Bakry is praiseworthy as a first-time actor, having the sensibility to underplay Rocks, straying away from over-acting; her anxiety and despair always kept under wraps. Yet you can see it all simmering the eyes. It’s only the rare very few moments of temporary relief, a place to stay for the night or the open arms of a concerned friend, do we see a softening and a few tears. D’angelou Osei Kissiedu as Emmanuel is endearing, his childish exuberance is infectious; a comical dinner scene has him recite his own ‘remix’ version of the Lord’s prayer.
The film is reminiscent of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood or Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake with its piercing racial and class themes. The story incorporates further layers of mental illness, parental neglect, the current education system and teenage peer pressure. Rocks embodies all the aforementioned and simultaneously Gavron zooms in on the nuances of her teenage years, she never lets her appear as an adult. As she tries to grapple with the gargantuan task of trying to create some sense of normalcy for Emmanuel, there is still a heavy focus on her adolescence, whether it be through social media, music, friends or boys.
There’s a sense of improvisation in Gavron’s third directorial feature. The opening scene finds Rocks and her group school friends on an east London rooftop overlooking the city skyscrapers at sundown. Their bantering is hilarious, cutting and silly; telling of their age. These personal funny of-the-moment interludes are littered throughout, which at times feel mismatched with the overall tone of a lamenting social drama, reducing, only touch, the emotive poignancy. This is a very slight criticism, one which you can forgive Gavron mainly for her commendable efforts of doing away with binary depictions of good or bad, as Rocks acts solely out of survival. Yes, she isn’t blameless, yet you the viewer, a member of society, is not blameless either. This is brilliant film; fresh, current and most of all rings very true.