Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, a young teenage girl finds herself struggling to take care of herself and her younger brother after being abandoned by their single mother with no choice but to live out on the streets. Starring: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Afi Okaidja, Anastasia Dymitrow, Sarah Niles and Layo-Christina Akinlude.
Capturing an authentic teenage experience is something that films often struggle with but it’s immediately clear that Rocks is one of those rare example that gets it completely right. It very quickly injects a huge youthful and vibrant energy, it show you Rocks (Bakray) when she’s in her element, amongst her friends and carefree but don’t get invested in that for too long because this film certainly has much more to explore than teenagers having fun. You can palpably feel the giant blow of sadness coming, there’s just a hint of it in the air and the second that she realises her mother has left, it sets off on a heart-breaking downward spiral.
The heart of this film, unsurprisingly given its name, lies with Rocks, she has a boulder of responsibility sudden thrown upon her shoulders, one that no child should have to bear, it’s hard enough being a teenager as it is but Bukray captures all of it with a talent beyond her years. In her first ever performance on film, she achieves a level of quality that is hugely impressive, she portrays Rocks as creative, generous, kind and motivated but balances that with all the usual arrogance and walled off qualities of a girl that age. It’s something special to watch and keeps you glued to it throughout the film, especially supported by a similarly great group of young girls. Ali in particular captures the struggle to give help to someone who can’t accept it, to hold on to her friendship with Rocks as much as she can while she’s being pushed away, the two of them create such a lovely banter and connection that it makes it almost hard to watch them in times of disagreement. It’s a wonderful thing to see such a talented group of young girls working together and creating an atmosphere, along with the writing and direction, that feels utterly grounded in reality. Sarah Niles is another great addition, she’s been serving quality performances for years but never received the appreciation that she deserves as she’s so enjoyable to watch onscreen, it’s a brief but meaningful role for her here and the connection she creates with the girls is the type that befits the ideal teacher.
One of the other things that this film does so well is to put London in a light that feels real, yes it’s ridiculous to say one part is more real than another but it’s something that’s so often missing, that you can strongly feel the authenticity of it as soon as the film starts. The way that the direction captures the flats, the markets, the buses, the school, it’s perfect in its representation of the areas of London people actually live in, rather than pretending someone on a normal salary could live anywhere near the shard or gherkin or any other recognisable landmark. It’s a consistent quality in Gavron’s direction, it feels like its got its feet firmly on the ground, it’s right in the action, it doesn’t get distracted from its purpose of telling Rocks’ story. That style of direction added to the editing draws out the emotion wonderfully, even more so in moments where the atmosphere it creates alone says what needs to be said without any characters doing so. It creates an intensity that slowly works away in the background, reflecting the way that Rocks tries to ignore how much they need help until it finally comes to a head.
The writing furthers all of that by creating characters that you can’t help but to watch, particularly in the loving relationship it creates between Rocks and her little brother Emmanuel, they have a playful banter, ribbing on each other but it’s always clear that they have a genuine connection. All the ways in which it captures being a teenage girl and the friendships you have at that age is fantastic by itself but added to the heart-breaking story that it has to offer, is a brilliant combination. The progression of the story is done extremely well, the risk and consequences slowly rise as it moves along but it never goes too heavy on the dramatics. Although perhaps the one thing that people need to tell filmmakers is that food fights do not happen in real life, you see them in countless films but you’re unlikely to have ever met anyone this has happened to.
Rocks is heart-breaking, sincere, authentic and poignant, it’s full of extremely talented young actors and a couple of seasoned pros to round it out. It has a huge amount to offer, it’s one of the few films to really capture a genuine teenage experience in London, to really put effort into capturing the right tone and atmosphere to represent the girls its portraying and that effort shows. Bakray’s performance is likely going to be a highlight of the year, it’s of a quality much beyond her years and hopefully this is the start of a long, illustrious career for such a talented young woman.