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Rocks is the director Sarah Gavron’s best fiction feature to date, beating Brick Lane and Suffragette to top honours thanks to outstandingly fresh performances from a cast of actors who deserve all the praise that’s been heaped on them.

It’s a simple and fairly familiar story. Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is a London inner-city kid, feisty and formidable, fast of mouth, quick of wit, older in attitude than her 13 years. One day her mother simply disappears from the council block she shares with Rocks and much younger brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), leaving behind a note saying she’s gone off somewhere to “clear my head” plus a bit of money intended to tide Rocks and Emmanuel over until she returns.

The rest of the film concerns Rocks’s struggle to keep herself and Emmanuel out of harm’s way, and away from social services, who will undoubtedly take her and Emmanuel into care if they get wind of two defenceless kids having to fend for themselves. And this being the sort of block where everyone is in each other’s business, word is bound to get out.

Stories of the grinding apparatus of the state, the pitiless mechanics of a society moving at speed and causing casualties, the crucial importance of social networks as a make-or-break factor when things go wrong, Gavron is clearly in Ken Loach territory. She shot the film chronologically, which Loach generally also does, a rare occurrence in movie-making but particularly useful with first-time actors, as this team scouted from London schools are.

Kosar Ali as Sumaya
Kosar Ali as Sumaya

The film is based on Theresa Ikoko’s play Girls and is something of a matching pair with Céline Sciamma’s film Girlhood. Both are stories of adversity being met in head-held-high fashion by a group of schoolgirls from various ethnic backgrounds and neither skirts the negatives while still managing an affirmatory, go-girl message.

From the opening shot, of the girls just talking crap among themselves, with a visit to score chicken and chips the biggest current concern (is that a Royale with Cheese kind of thing?), the performances are astonishingly good. Bakray is a force of nature, but so is Kosar Ali as her best friend, Sumaya, a Muslim girl with the sort of supportive family Rocks does not have. In a trickier role as Roshé, the new girl who is trouble, the yin to Sumaya’s yan, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson is also a name to look out for.

Front is what these girls are all about, the sort of front you need just to operate in a big city day in day out. This makes these girls initially hard to warm to, but Gavron early on puts us on-side with Rocks with a few cutaway “emotion” shots. The fact that Rocks’s brother Emmanuel is a properly defenceless kid, and Kissiedu a bright little button, really helps too.

The shooting style matches the performances, loose and free, a handheld camera, a compressed TikTok-inspired vibe – one girl talks over another, they all burst into laughter, looks are exchanged – though there’s smart editing here and there, with the visuals from one scene overlapping with the sound from another, allowing a new plot development to be flagged on the fly.

At some level, yes, Gavron is giving us her “deliberately urban” movie, and at times it gets a bit box-ticky, but then things suddenly shift and a whole new perspective opens up. At one point near the end Rocks, Sumaya and their gang of gal pals go to Hastings and for a second we suddenly see them, how loud and exotic they are, these girls from the big city, through the eyes of the seaside town they’ve just arrived in.

Bakray is worth all the awards and nominations and yet this film is actually at its best when it’s focusing on the dynamic between her and her friends – funny and fierce and never letting on how vulnerable they all are.

Rocks – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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