Sometimes a film comes along that is so effortlessly fresh and authentic, it makes other films seemed mannered and contrived. Rocks is one of these films and is remarkably uplifting and truthful.
The film invites us into the life of a British Nigerian 15-year-old girl nicknamed Rocks growing up in Hackney, east London. Rocks lives in a small council flat with her single mother and younger brother Emmanuel. Rocks is well-liked with a close circle of friends and has a micro-business doing make-up for her schoolmates. One morning she finds a note from her mum announcing that she has gone away for a spell to ‘clear her head’ and a brown envelope with some £20 notes to tide her over. Shola takes on this responsibility for looking after herself and her brother with a quiet resignation – her mother has disappeared before – but the anxieties and stress of this burden become increasingly difficult to cope with.
The film addresses weighty issues including child neglect, racism, mental health struggles, bullying and immigration. However it handles these themes with a remarkably delicate touch. Although it has moments of profound sadness, in essence Rocks is a celebration of female friendship and strength of character; the script was even originally entitled ‘Joy’! The obstacles are counterpointed with Rocks’s underlying good nature, her affectionate bond with her younger brother, and most significantly the strength she derives from her friends.
The film production took the unusual approach of developing Theresa Ikok and Claire Wilson’s script in workshops where the actors improvised with the writer’s ideas until a plot emerged. I imagine crowdsourcing their direct experience in this way – an approach that was continued into shooting – helped give the film its sense of realism.
It also allowed the girls to bond and form the relationships that were reflected in the final story, perhaps most notably between Rocks (Bukky Bakray) and her close friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) whose fun-loving and deeply caring character is pivotal in the film. All the characters are played with an unassuming authenticity; the girls are uniformly excellent giving naturalistic performances with effortless charisma. You believe in these characters and their relationships.
Bakray herself carries the film wonderfully. We immediately warm to her as a carefree teen and she sensitively expresses Rocks emotional journey as she struggles to keep things together under the pressure of her situation; we never once stop caring for her.
D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, the child who plays Rock’s brother Emmanuel, is similarly wonderful. Sweet natured and innocent, he lives in a world of toy dinosaurs and playful imagination. He’s lovable and so his increasing distress at his mother’s absence is heartbreaking. Structurally, the relationship between Rocks and Emmanuel alows the film to show us a different side to Rocks’s character and it also brings to the foreground the impact of their mother’s absence, and how Rocks can’t fill that gap by herself no matter how maternal she becomes.
The film also draws emotional expression from the nuanced camerawork by cinematographer Hélène Louvart. Although she’s been working since the 1990s, Louvart has only come to my attention in recent years with her work in Alice Rohrwacher’s wonderful magic-realist Happy as Lazzaro, and Eliza Hittman’s films Beach Rats (currently on Netflix) and the exceptional Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
All these films demonstrate a keen emotional eye, Louvart’s camera seems to take a instinctual semi-improvised approach, observant of the actors’ body language. The framing is often tight, capturing minute gestures, hands, eyes, shoulders, that emphasise the emotional heart of the performances. It gives the scenes an immediacy that a more formalised approach would lack, creating a direct connection between the viewer and the characters. Her method seems to be a very good match for the improvisatory approach to the filmmaking. Interestingly, this approach meant there was almost 200 hours of footage to edit.
Louvart also contributes fragmentary mood shots that are woven into the editing, inconsequential by themselves but lending a lot to the film’s mood and tone. The tone is also defined by director Sarah Gavron’s ability to capture a strong sense of place.
Filmed in mostly in east London, the real-life location of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Dalston though rapidly gentrifying still have much of their original, low-income communities intact. Gavron has a strong connection to London; her previous films include Brick Lane and this historical drama Suffragette and both films were set and shot a few minutes’ walk from Rocks’s locations. The area is very multi-cultural, which Gavron reflects in the range of ethnicities and backgrounds of Rocks’s group of friends.
This variety is also expressed by the contrasting homes Gavron chose as locations for her characters; Rocks basic council flat contrasts with one friend’s crowded but grounded house in the midst of wedding preparations, and these contrast in turn with another friend’s comfortably white middle class townhouse in affluent Islington. The girls have a genuine respect and curiosity about their friends’ backgrounds, and the only hint of division is when a new girl joins the class having moved from somewhere remotely up-north.
Interestingly, the girls don’t seem to have ventured far from their east London home. More than once when other British towns are mentioned one of the girls is heard asking where that place is, and even the relatively close Tottenham is perceived as alarmingly distant. Later in the film, when the girls take a trip to coastal Hastings, it’s a big and liberating adventure. Despite their varied backgrounds these girls have a limited geographical first-hand experience, something that is probably very typical of a inner city upbringing.
I was also impressed by how effortlessly the film draws us into the world of these girls, and of Rocks in particular. The scenes of childhood camaraderie and sense of fun feel genuine; they frequently made me smile. The jokes, dance routines and other paraphernalia of teenage life as well as the much deeper ties give this film an energy.
The film effortlessly captures a sense of who’s in the group and also of who is remote, including a teenage distrust of authority figures. The girls’ teachers are at best distant or at worst condescending – one teacher dismissively crushes a schoolkid’s ambitions when giving careers advice, and another self-regarding, jaded teacher is notably tone deaf and patronising. Without explicitly articulating it, the film quickly defines why the girls don’t trust these adults to have their best interests at heart. And this wariness carries through to Rock’s determination to evade the small brigade of social workers who come looking for her and Emmanuel, convinced that the authorities intend to separate the two siblings.
Another reason why Rocks avoids these authority figures is her reluctance to face up to the possibility that perhaps her mother isn’t coming back. It’s her determination to continue independently that gives the film its narrative momentum and the film expertly builds up the situation ever so gradually. Rocks is increasingly overwhelmed by her predicament and comes to make misjudged decisions that fray the ties to her friends, misinterpreting their intentions and lashing out at those who want to help her. We know that Rocks is behaving out of character, just as we know from the early scenes of carefree friendship how devastated and alone she must feel when she damages these bonds. And to the film’s credit, when Rocks keenly feels a well-intentioned action as a betrayal, the film makes us feel that betrayal too, so much are we by now invested in her worldview.
But ultimately Rocks is a celebration of these friendships, the other girls are there for her, their bonds are too strong to be permanently damaged. A lot of social realist films are grim and depressing, but Rocks is ultimately uplifting and heartwarming. It feels very truthful and doesn’t shirk from showing difficult situations. Nor does it offer a contrived resolution: the ending is slightly ambiguous and it’s by no means certain that these characters will necessarily live ‘happily ever after’. That would be dishonest. But what is certain is that the strength of these friendships, those loving bonds and solidarity, will get these young women through.
Rocks was released to UK cinemas on 18th September, delayed from the spring due to Coronavirus. It will eventually make its way to Netflix, but I’d urge you to see it in the cinema while you can. Thanks to Reclaim the Frame for my cinema ticket.