Director: Sarah Gavron
Screenwriters: Theresa Ikoko, Claire Wilson
Starring: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Sarah Niles
The British film industry has a strange fixation with putting on appearances. Looking at Oscar winners and nominees of years past, the films our small isle pushes forward the most are royalty, literature and war narratives: films in which actors speak without regional dialects, prattle on the importance of good old-fashioned British resolve, and sip tea in every other scene. Yet, while this obsession with presenting ourselves as a proper and regal society might work exceptionally well as awards bait, it damningly conceals what those of us who live here, especially those of us from the working classes, understand to be the real Britain. Rocks, a product of absolute collaboration, spearheaded by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane; Suffragette), stands defiantly against these ingrained connotations of life in Britain, doing so with dauntless charm and shrewd conviction.
Bukkay Bakrey leads the film in an outstanding debut performance, playing Olushola, affectionately nicknamed Rocks. Wise beyond her fifteen years, Rocks is a bright, sure-footed East-Londoner, living in a tower-block estate with her mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude) and younger brother, Emmanuel (played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, whom displays the acting instincts of a seasoned professional). She’s part of a loyal clique of girls who all attend her local school and love each other fiercely: ‘Real Queens fix each other’s crowns’ a poster on Rocks’ wardrobe reads. Based on the central girl gang’s real-life experiences, the film is the most authentic British coming-of-age story in years. Realised in collaborative workshops with young people in schools and youth centres, the story rings true to a more typical sense of British life – especially for young people. Before the scriptwriting process even began, having been so heavily involved in the conception of its central themes, most of Rocks’ magnificent ensemble cast had already signed on to appear in the film. The girls in Rocks represent London’s true diversity and the vibrant, aspirational young women growing up there: they are the kind of girls you know, went to school with and grew up around.
After arriving home to find that her depressive Mother is missing, the responsibility of Emanuel’s care and the family home’s upkeep falls on Rocks’ shoulders. This isn’t Rocks’ first rodeo either; she knows to put on a brave face as she attempts to sustain herself and her younger brother on a few measly notes left behind in a dogeared envelope. However, it isn’t long before the bills need paying, money runs out, and social services catch a whiff of the siblings’ precarious situation. Rocks hustles her way through it all, giving social workers a wide berth as she lugs her younger brother to and from the homes of friends and grimy hotels whilst also attempting to make some money as a make-up artist in a local salon. Determined that her Mother will return, Rocks tries to hold out for as long as possible, but the immense pressure of her situation means that friction begins to arise at school. Given her reputation for fierce loyalty, Rocks’ best friends regard her as a pillar of strength. With her status in mind, alongside a cocktail of shame and fear, Rocks is unwilling to accept help or advice from those around her, and, unable to find a way to help Rocks, the group of friends begin to splinter. All alone, as a girl in a woman’s shoes, Rocks attempts to create the illusion of normal life, but eventually everything she works so hard to maintain begins to crumble.
Written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron, Rocks is a tenderly crafted collaboration built around the cacophony of talented newcomers at its centre. We see a genuine portrait of teenage life through the cast’s playful Snapchat filters and high-energy, bantering, and often improvised conversations. Although often deeply painful – speaking to those most affected by austerity, poverty and mental illness – Rocks is far from the gritty attempts at poverty porn we usually associate with such narratives. Foremost, Rocks manages to feel bright, hopeful and profoundly optimistic. Gavron allows space for every voice to contribute to the story. Doing so provides these young women with a platform on which to grow into themselves, create their identities, and represent the toughness of teenage girls. This immensely talented cast’s intuition and natural charm suggest that it is now time for a new generation of creatives to take the helm of a new era of British film.
Often portrayed in cinema as overly romantic, inherently sexual or bitchy, we rarely ever get to see the fun and intense love existing between the bonds of female friendship. But Rocks brims with love; especially between Rocks and her closest friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali). The girls’ friendship is powerful, tangible and material beyond the limitations of the screen. Like many women of colour, Rocks lives in a world that treats her best when she has her head down, hiding her emotions and struggles. Yet, surrounded by her friends, who continually offer genuine acts of kindness and care in any way they can, Rocks becomes supported, beautiful, empowered, and protected. With her friends surrounding her, Rocks will be okay no matter what.
Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, known best for her work on Eliza Hitman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, captures Rocks with the same unflinching, grassroots eye of her previous work. Her delicate photography emanates an entirely authentic atmosphere; she adds to the story’s legitimacy by blending documentary-style camerawork with a compelling dramatic landscape. The London we see in Louvart’s camerawork, and in Gavron’s direction, is not the place popular television or award-winning movies would typically have us see. And, although we do brush against violence, crime, mental illness and drug-use, Gavron makes it clear that these things are not the sums of all this country’s parts.
London is a city populated by a diverse, vibrant, intelligent bunch of people, many of them talented young women, and now it’s time for them to tell us their stories.