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LFF 2019 Review: Rocks

Director Sarah Gavron’s latest feature Rocks walks a seamless line between energetic coming-of-age and social realism. The film comes alive through a very strong ensemble cast of new talent and mixes wit with grit throughout. There are teenage kicks to be experienced outside, and adult-sized realities to face at home for 16 year old Shola aka Rocks (Bukky Bakray).

It’s a raucous and joyful introduction to the characters. The films opens with mobile phone footage (a device the film uses throughout) of Rocks on an urban rooftop surrounded by her tight female crew: Khadijah (Tawheda Begum), Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow) and Agnes (Ruby Stokes) who all go to the same east London girls’ school. They sing, dance, and giggle while the city looms large in the background.

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We very quickly establish that Rocks has a lot on her teenage shoulders. Her problems extend far beyond planning for the weekend and being the playground’s resident make-up artist. Rocks returns home to find a note from her mother to say she’s struggling and needs to get away and clear her head.

Now it’s just Rocks and her little brother Emmanuele (D’angelo Osei Kissiedu), she stops for a moment, and gathers herself. She’s been here before, and copes by being pragmatic. But that pragmatism can only get her so far alone.

Shola got her nickname in an earlier childhood incident when she was defending best mate Sumaya, vowing to “always have her back”. But, like her tough-girl moniker suggests, Rocks spends most of her time trying to keep it together for everyone in life, without asking for someone to have her back too. At home, she’s stepped into adult shoes, trying to make sure she and Emmanuelle can stay together.

Scenes between the siblings anchor the reality of their situation, and the two actors have a natural on-screen dynamic. Emmanuel’s innocence is both hilarious and heartbreaking: he uses a toy lightsaber to command the power to come back on, while Rocks looks for money to pay the bill. Out of cash, with neighbours and teachers beginning to notice the kids are fending for themselves, the pair flee to avoid running into social services.

Even in its tougher scenes, it’s not a film that lingers too long to make a point, and is empathetic towards its characters. Humour is the film’s secret weapon, and Bukky Bakray’s performance makes it her character’s personal line of defence too. She’s in nearly every scene and is magnetic to watch.

Teenage dialogue can be pretty tough to pull off convincingly, but the fact that screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson workshopped elements of the script with the cast members shines through. These girls are a joy to spend time with. They sass their teachers, and throw shade (and, at one point, pancake batter) in all directions.

The intersection of class, race and even religion all flow through the film without heavy signposting. During an art class Sabina shares that her Polish gypsy Grandparents were persecuted and taken to Auschwitz. “Hitler, man needs to fix up”, her friend replies.

Like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is a coming of age social drama seen directly through the eyes of the young people at its heart. Rocks pushes that point of view even further, where adults are a bit part in this teen girl’s story

Hélène Louvart’s naturalistic cinematography captures differences in London life colliding, from showing the shared city view from two very residential roof tops, to the way the city can seem so huge and overwhelming when you’re young and lost.

Shouty British band Idles called their 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance, a statement that could easily be this film’s motto. It’s arguably Sarah Gavron’s most interesting work to date, and she’s credited the work of casting director Lucy Pardee in finding and working with the girls.

It’s a shining reminder of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and what women can do when they bring their stories to the screen. Rocks, does indeed rock.

Rocks had its UK Premiere at the London Film Festival 2019, and will be on general release in the UK on 18 September 2020.

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