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Review: Radically refreshing ‘Rocks’ spins an inspiring tale of a Black British teen

Bukky Bakray and other young women walking in a scene in the movie "Rocks."
Bukky Bakray, center, with Kosar Ali, second from left, in the movie “Rocks.”
(TIFF)

Teeming with an infectious effervescence, the adolescent coming-of-age drama “Rocks” differentiates itself from other recent explorations of modern girlhood set amid immigrant communities. Crafted from a screenplay by playwright Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, director Sarah Gavron’s social realist wonder soars in great part because of its earnest performances.

Better known by the moniker Rocks, Shola (newcomer Bukky Bakray) is a multitalented British teen of Nigerian descent attending an all-girls school. We enter as her daydreaming is thwarted when her mother walks out on her and her charming little brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). On the run from child protective services, Rocks braves adult responsibilities she is ill-prepared to navigate.

Her vivacious spirit persists, nonetheless, thanks to a loving support system found in her eclectic group of friends, especially in closest ally Sumaya (Kosar Ali). It’s in the casual, classroom banter on cultural identity, as well as in the goofiness of an impromptu food fight or a tearful argument that the luminosity of their sisterhood glows brighter. Displaying magnetic, seemingly effortless, chemistry, the ensemble cast enchants.

Through them, Gavron’s direction captures the ebullience of youth with a plot that rejects the sordid tropes countless other filmmakers have imposed on coming-of-age stories about BIPOC kids. Ikoko and Wilson’s writing never minimizes the gravity of Rocks’ circumstances, but keeps her on an optimistic path focused on the relationships that uplift her. That’s radically refreshing.

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As with last year’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” French cinematographer Hélène Louvart brings her vibrant but unencumbered eye to a tale of young women in energetic handheld sequences that know when to stop and hold a pensive gaze. Interspersed with candid videos shot vertically on mobile devices for social media, “Rocks” has built-in immediacy. Yet it’s not caught up in any discourse on how these forms of communication can be detrimental. This is a portrait of a specific reality uncluttered by the burden of heavy messaging.

With all the makings of a star, Bakray manages to outshine her marvelous screen mates, putting forward Rocks as concurrently reserved but self-assured. Scenes of stinging sorrow, sure to elicit some tears, validate her emotional range. Even if on paper the themes might come across as frequently visited, this is one of the very best illustrations of them this century so far. Heartfelt but not cloying, “Rocks” is a radiant must-see.

‘Rocks’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Available Feb. 1 on Netflix


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