Filmmaker Sarah Gavron swings far away from her previous film, 2015’s Suffragette with Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep, with her latest, Rocks. At first glance, white women fighting for the right to vote in London in 1912 doesn’t have much in common with young women of color, many from immigrant families, interacting as friends and enemies in present-day London. Different ages, different races, different familial backgrounds, different cultural expectations. But what Gavron emphasizes in both films is the power of female community, of women linking arms and hands and bodies in pursuit of one goal—whether that’s civil rights or surviving high school. It’s just a matter of scale.
Rocks follows high school student Shola (Bukky Bakray), nicknamed Rocks, whose bristling defensiveness sets the tone for the film. She has a wide grin, but you have to earn it; she’s smart and clever, but won’t volunteer that aspect of her personality right away. At home, she’s close with younger brother Emmanuel (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), who gets on her nerves but follows her everywhere; at school, her best friend is the headscarf-wearing Sumaya (Kosar Ali), who is always ready to call Rocks on her bullshit or back her up in a fight. Rocks is a little narcissistic, a little selfish, always quick with a joke but also quick to be insulted. She is, in many ways, a typical teenage girl—aside from the fact that her mother, who has struggled for years with her mental health, has willingly left.
The note Rocks’s mother leaves behind says she’s leaving to “clear my head,” and sure, she’s gone before. But she’s not answering her phone, and Rocks learns that her mother was fired from her job two weeks ago, and there’s barely any money left for Rocks and Emmanuel to get by. Rocks’s father isn’t in the picture, and Rocks’s grandmother in Lagos, Nigeria, has no idea what’s going on. Neighbors are beginning to notice that Rocks’s mother isn’t around. And at school, Rocks is increasingly frustrated with how her friends are reacting to her mother’s absence. They want to help her and Emmanuel, but she keeps downplaying the severity of the situation, even when the electricity goes out and child services starts sniffing around. And when Rocks begins to rebuff Sumaya in earnest, instead striking up a friendship with the school’s new bad girl, Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), she pushes away all her support systems at once. “I’ve been doing just fine. I don’t need you,” Rocks declares, but she’s just a child trying to take care of another child. How long can that really last?
Much of the ensemble in Rocks comprises young actresses making their film debuts, and there’s a rawness to their performances that is truly captivating. To be perfectly honest, the British accents and omnipresent slang are slightly difficult to follow when the girls are all together, but the vibe of those scenes is really special: Rocks doing the girls’ makeup, or everyone freestyling rapping, or Emmanuel being a good sport and letting his sister’s friends mess with him. Those moments of open-hearted acceptance underscore the love and camaraderie shared by Rocks and her friends, and Gavron wisely chooses to begin and end the film with variations on that scene, the camera whirling between and around and through the clusters of girls as they crowd on rooftops or play at the beach. There is indisputable intimacy to how these girls care about each other and how volcanically they fight, and Gavron puts us directly there.
Consistently throughout its well-paced 93-minute run time, Rocks shows us British communities we don’t normally see in narratives about young women, giving the film urgency and presentness. Most of Rocks’s friends are also children of immigrant families, and the film takes us into their homes to see the different ways they live, to see how their family dynamics play out, to see the relationships between various generations. In one scene, we see a market with storefronts that reflect Chinese, Jamaican, and Ukrainian vendors; we meet Roshé’s Russian stepmother, who owns her own salon catering to that community, and Roshé’s hustling, drug-dealing boyfriend, who has Middle Eastern ancestry. And the film isn’t ignorant of how these various communities sometimes butt up against each other, mired in their own webs of racism and classism—which only grow more fraught as Rocks is pushed into increasingly desperate circumstances.
In many ways, Rocks reminded me of a little-seen movie from last year, Night Comes On, which trailed a young woman after her release from juvenile detention, her reunion with her younger sister in foster care, and her confrontation with her absent father. That movie also wondered about the psychological toll of being a young black woman in a country determined to put you in line, and it was exceptional, and barely anyone saw it. I hope that won’t be the case for Rocks: The films feel like they’re in partnership with each other, each trying to communicate something essential about womanhood and selfhood in our current moment, and that’s a conversation worth having.
This review originally ran as coverage of TIFF 2019:
Rocks was the Opening Night Film in the Platform category and a TIFF Next Wave film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: TIFF