Rocks review – high school tale is an energetic five-star triumph

The East London-set drama boasts wit, a dynamic cast and a piercing sadness as it follows a Nigerian British girl and her younger brother

With its energy, its creativity, its raw passion and its fun, this film and its newcomer cast are the best thing I’ve seen at this year’s Toronto film festival.

It’s a social-realist adventure written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson and directed by Sarah Gavron about a multi-ethnic community in East London - in the spirit of Ken Loach’s Kes or Céline Sciamma’s Bande Des Filles. It’s tough, but it’s the opposite of miserablist. At the story’s centre is a group of year 11 girls and the star is Bukky Bakray, playing a Nigerian British girl nicknamed “Rocks”, who is maybe no great academic high-flier but really talented at cosmetics. Her dad is dead and she lives with her troubled mum, who has had, as a social worker delicately puts it, issues managing her medication.

It is Rocks who largely has the responsibility of minding her kid brother, Emmanuel, gloriously played by D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu – and Emmanuel is a black-belt scene-stealer. He starts the film the way he means to go on, with a hilarious setpiece. Asking if he may say grace before dinner, Emmanuel launches into his own version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our father – he’s up in heaven.” Rocks cheerfully calls that his “remix”. But there’s real trouble when Rocks’s mum absents herself from the family home.

The odyssey of Rocks and Emmanuel – who in effect go on the run, fugitives from the world of grownup authority – provides a motor that drives the film but, in a way, its best moments come when Rocks and her friends are doing nothing more dramatically significant than just hanging out, talking and laughing. Occasionally these scenes erupt into something defiant, as when a food fight monumentally kicks off in the middle of a home economics class or when a girl tells her grumpy teacher: “You’re like this because you’ve got your period, sir.” (He furiously replies: “That’s actually really offensive.”)

But really, the improv-type dialogue doesn’t need to go anywhere or do anything to be hugely entertaining and watchable. The group around Rocks are capable, in the best possible way, of laughing about nothing, laughing from sheer directionless joy. The sadness, when it comes, is piercing – yet so is Rocks’s resilience and her philosophical acceptance. Bukky Bakray gives a very moving portrayal of someone who has boldly accepted maternal responsibility for Emmanuel at the very moment that she is to be deprived of it.

Of course, there is a larger sadness here: the realisation that the sheer energy and dynamism of this group is likely to be dissipated and wasted when they leave school – society will probably not find a way to tap this resource. When the class is taught about Picasso and cubism and they make spoof Picasso cut-out images of people’s faces cut from magazines, it is a funny moment, but serious too, because there is a real sense of potential. This film is such a rush of vitality. It rocks.

  • Rocks is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the UK on 24 April, with a later release in the US

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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