Coming off the slick production values of Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s latest film might seem like a step down. However, shot documentary verité with a cast of unknown actors, Rocks reveals itself to be one of the most genuine and earnest films of the year. With an authenticity that could only come from its commitment to realism.
Set in the council estates of inner-city London, the film follows teenager Olushola, or Rocks (Bukky Bakray) as she’s known amongst friends, trying to navigate the complexities of state school, building a future and caring for her younger brother Emmanuel (D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu) in the wake of her mother’s disappearance. Leaving Rocks with a little money and a hastily scribbled note it’s made explicitly clear that this is just the latest episode in the ongoing drama of Rocks’ life. It proves to be a tipping point though as she is pushed to desperation to stay together with her brother. A desperation which risks alienating her a supportive group of friends, in particular Kosar Ali’s Sumaya, whose help she does not know how to receive.
Rocks’ journey stumbles across the streets of London, friend’s couches and cheap hotels all with Emmanuel in tow. Resorting to side hustles, lies and outright theft just to get by. Her determination to take care of Emmanuel on her own drives the divide between Rocks and her friends. A divide filled by emotions both complex and real. The chemistry between her and Sumaya is palpable, filled with an energy and playfulness that speaks to an authentic friendship. Their confrontation weighed by the frustration of years of friendship, now questioned by Rock’s impenetrable stubbornness.
It is a credit to Bakray that as stubborn and irrational as Rocks is, we never turn on her. Through her performance we see that Rocks has the maturity of a teenager, one burdened with responsibilities no teenager should have to face, but a teenager nonetheless. We admire her resourcefulness, her determination to succeed but recognise that her fear of losing Emmanuel only puts the both of them at greater risk. More than maturity and drive though we see in Rocks the love for her brother, the tenderness with which she cares for him, the rhythm of her banter with friends and desire to misbehave as all teenagers do. She is a fully rounded human being, with both the pains and joys that brings.
For all the harsh reality of Rocks, it is in those joys in which it shines the brightest. There is a flow to the film that invites us to join Rocks and her friends. To laugh at the microaggressions of her largely white teachers, the participate in their antics and go along for this ride. It’s safe to say that the British film industry rarely captures young people, let alone young people of colour, with such richness. With the kind of authenticity that one can see their own adolescence in but Rocks is that film. So much so that comparisons to its predecessors feel inadequate.
Too uplifting to be Sweet Sixteen and too grounded to be Bend it Like Beckham. Instead Rocks steadfastly occupies its own space as the great British coming-of-age story for 2020. Perhaps longer but then, time will tell.