▶︎ Rocks is screening in UK cinemas.

In an early scene in Rocks, a quietly yet intensely gritty film co-written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron, adolescent girls are making videos of themselves, singing and cheering, as they overlook the city. In the distance looms London’s financial district. Its reflective glass towers set the tone for the girls soon finding themselves in a classroom, where their easy banter and camaraderie give way to being lectured about picking optional courses, a step towards choosing a career.

Among them is Rocks (Bukky Bakray), a 15-year-old Nigerian British girl. Rocks is one step ahead of her peers. She works as a makeup artist, and her Instagram has pictures to prove her skills. So while other girls muse about becoming nurses or lawyers (and in this multicultural, multi-ethnic classroom, a white teacher is characteristically too quick to point out their grades aren’t good enough and they should consider other options), Rocks has humbler aspirations.

Rocks – the movie – appears to be a story of girlhood saddled with the burdens of gender prejudice, but our reserved heroine faces a greater challenge. She just started off a new year, with her mother helping her very loveable little brother Emmanuel (D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu) prepare a breakfast on the first day of school.

But this domestic bliss suddenly evaporates. A handwritten note informs Rocks that mum is gone, off to clear her head. Ikoko and Wilson’s script, beautifully acted out by Bakray and Kissiedu, hinges on the fact that the sudden disappearance is nothing new to the siblings. Emmanuel is so little that his world evolves around imaginary play and having his basic needs of shelter and food met.

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Rocks (2019)

It is therefore up to Rocks to create an environment that resembles a home. As their financial situation becomes dire, she will go through a long process of denial. The more she struggles – hiding from social workers, dragging Emmanuel from place to place, sleeping over at friends and eventually stealing – the more she insists on mothering. Rocks is, then, a compassionate, finely observed portrait of a young woman’s gradual breaking down, as the usual buffers, including brotherly love and friendships, strain under her crushing responsibility.

Rocks’s agony is real, a relentless onslaught of bad news and a numbing lack of understanding when she rejects support. And yet the film is about resilience, and so points to a resolution. In Rocks’s case, this means allowing other adults – the social system – to step in.

In a gorgeous sequence, Rocks and her girlfriends, among these the sublime Sumaya (Kosar Ali), pool all their pocket money to visit the seaside town where Emmanuel now has a new foster home. It’s a bravura sequence, all movement, wind and the girls’ young faces filled with fleeting emotions, captured in the intensely observant, tactile cinematography of Hélène Louvart, whose previous credits include Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats. Rocks’s piercing realisation that the price of happiness sometimes requires letting someone you love dearly go requires no words.

Originally published: 18 September 2019