Rocks is a Year 11 teenager living in an East London council block with her single mum and younger brother Emmanuel. One day they both go to school and when they come home they find their mum has gone, leaving a hastily scribbled note and a brown envelope with some cash saying she just needs some time to ‘clear her head’.
Terrified of the social services – from which she is no stranger – Rocks (Bukky Bakray) spends her days trying give them the slip while consoling Emmanuel who alternates between being distraught and a normal little boy playing with his dinosaurs and taking on imaginary spacemen. When she loses her money life becomes extremely challenging but at no time does she stray from living up to her name insofar as Emmanuel is concerned, a name she was given after sticking up for her best friend, Somaya (Kosar Ali).
What makes this a stand-out film is its portrayal of a bunch of mostly black and Muslim teenage girls in a deprived school. Like all girls they love to giggle, experiment with make-up (this is Rocks’ forte), improvise to rap, dance and chat about their next unhealthy takeaway (several of them are vastly overweight, unsurprising given their poverty and dietary preferences).
Director Sarah Gavron focuses on their sheer normality – anxiety about whether a tampon can ‘lose’ your virginity, obsession with phone-filming – many of the scenes are seen as if on a mobile phone, reflecting the day-to-day reality of most teens. The food fight in the domestic science lesson which causes much mirth and hilarity amongst the perpetrators nevertheless has a subtext about being bullied and an outsider, like Roshé (Sheneiya-Monik Greyson), a troubled and troubling interloper into the close-knit gang of girls.
But the flip side of the story also illustrates the serious challenges faced by many at living on the edge of our so-called civilised society, like Rocks’ mum (Layo-Christina Akinlude) who simply cannot copy anymore; or the casual racism of the white male teacher who patronisingly tells Somaya that if she wants to be a lawyer she’ll have to get much better grades and his humourless reaction to girlish banter in the classroom; and tellingly the unnoticed truancy and casual crime that bad boys can lead you into. Most pertinent is the racism and exploitation faced by the homeless in so-called hotels – something most of us have not experienced but often read about.
While setting out the realities suffered by the urban poor, the film also celebrates loyalty and friendship. Rocks is a real brick to her beloved Emmanuel, heartrendingly played by D’angelou Ossei Kissiedu, whose version of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the film brings a lump to the throat, as does his devotion to the class pet, a stripy frog. Rocks’ friends all rally round to try and help her out, with some fascinating insights into their respective lives whether its Somaya’s large Somali family who are gathered together to celebrate her brother’s engagement, or her white friend, Agnes (Ruby Stokes), who has a home that poor Rocks could only dream about but no understanding of how to help her working-class black schoolfriend.
It is extraordinary that Gavron, a middle-class white filmmaker, best-known for Suffragette (2015), although she also made Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2007) again set in the east end, can so authentically capture the reality of being a teenager in contemporary Britain, albeit with the help of British/Nigerian screenwriter, Theresa Ikoko. Apparently they assembled their mostly amateur cast and then wrote the script using their stories. It is this genuine quality that makes this disturbing yet joyous film a must-see to re-affirm our belief in the innate goodness of (most) people.