East London teen Shola Omotoso (Bukky Bakray) earned the nickname “Rocks” by protecting her childhood best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) from bullies. Now, the 16-year-olds run with an all-girl crew — Khadijah (Tawheda Begum), Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow) and Agnes (Ruby Stokes) — that always has their backs. Yet, while Rocks looks mellow as the gang screws around after school, her home life has trained her to never soften. Her father is gone, and her mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude) is a depressive who, as Rock’s grandmother sighs over long-distance from Nigeria, is one of those women who isn’t “cut out for motherhood.”
Rocks disagrees and hangs up the phone. But the truth is, her mom is capable of abandoning her daughter and 7-year-old son Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). At the start of this heartfelt drama from director Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”), Rock’s mom disappears, leaving behind just a bit of cash from her grocery store job and a note that says, “Going away to clear head!” Over the next week, Rocks attempts to keep her and Emmanuel’s lives on track. She makes sure they both get to school, pink camo backpack slung over her shoulder like a girl going to war. When her friends get concerned, she swears everything is fine — she’s so afraid foster care will damage her imaginative and delightful younger brother that she’d rather lie and steal.
“Rocks” is in awe of this strong young woman who refuses to crack. Yet, while the film observes the way an extra pressure at exactly the wrong time can wobble a life disastrously off-track — 16 is, after all, the testing year that will define her and her classmates’ futures — this credible, small and deeply human film is most interested in reassuring girls like Rocks that their community is willing to put them back together.
Ideally, that’s true. The movie’s optimism comes from the way it was put together, as an after-school collective between filmmakers, volunteers and girls like Bakray, who met screenwriter Theresa Ikoko years before cameras began to roll. Both Bakray and Ikoko are Nigerian, and as they connected about their shared culture, this story began to form with help from Ikoko’s co-writer Claire Wilson.
That’s a lot to put on Bakray’s shoulders, but the 16-year-old has a presence that commands attention. To find Bakray’s friends, casting director Lucy Pardee (“American Honey”) assembled mostly first-time actors willing to workshop the story for an entire year. Her girls are diverse the way modern London is diverse; they’re Somalian, and Polish Gypsy, to name a few. Still, while Gavron enjoys the immigrant unity of a salon of Russian hairdressers agreeing to babysit Emmanuel, or the way the boy claps along with a Somali song at Sumaya’s house, the film’s insists the audience see its characters first and foremost as who they are, not where they’re from. They are Brits — even though when they visit a majority-white town, one jokes they’re in the Sunken Place.
The details feel real: the way Rocks, an aspiring cosmetologist, makes money doing eyebrows at 50 pence a pop, and does her grocery shopping like someone who’s never seen a vegetable. Even the teacher who orders the kids to take off their school-banned sneakers, necklaces and sunglasses is an actual teacher, and when Gavron films the girls dancing in class, “Rocks” has the feel of a documentary.
But in the end, however, Gavron’s style recalls “The Bicycle Thief” redone in rich colors with a hip afro-beat soundtrack. “Rocks” isn’t above giving the audience’s guilt complex an extra twist of the wrench. For ultra pathos, the script even lades Emmanuel with the responsibly of watching his grade’s pet frog. Still, the film wants to prove that hope isn’t fools gold. And when it does, “Rocks” glows.