Review: Rocks (2019)
Anything seems a possibility as the core cast of Rocks look out from the top of a high-rise over London. The girls are on the precipice of adulthood as they take in the skyline of their hometown, naming the skyscrapers before them, dreaming up imaginary dates with imaginary boyfriends and singing Tina Turner’s ‘Proud Mary’ a cappella. They’re on the outside looking in, as the somewhat invisible perimeter of class divides young, ethnically diverse women from the sheen of the capital's financial district.
Though the elite may occupy the faraway space they survey from a steel balcony, this opening scene tells us that their lives are rich in friendship and commonality. With its gorgeous sun-drenched longshots, lens flare and hand-held tracking shots of each girl with panoramic views of London in the distance, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography enhances this moment of unbeatable, young euphoria. The imagery, combined with the naturalistic dialogue, is so immediately genuine that you wouldn’t be amiss for thinking that you had just started watching a documentary with this group of girls as the subject.
The social realism of Rocks is consistent throughout, but as the narrative develops and the equilibrium of the opening scene wobbles, it is the emergence of conflict that continues to convince us with each authentic beat of the story. In the first 10 minutes of the film, we see Shola 'Rocks' Omotoso: the child, the teenager and the student. She’s surrounded by her friends and in school she is asked by her teachers to think about her options and future career. Impressively, she has already begun a playground make-up enterprise, doing other girls’ brows, which is accompanied by an MUA Instagram page to showcase her looks. Beyond her entrepreneurial pursuits, at home, Rocks teases her little brother Emmanuel at the breakfast table and hugs her mum before leaving for school. This time is precious and to anyone not blinded by privilege, represents a pretty normal life as a young girl living in South East London.
This all changes when Rocks comes home from school to find a rushed note of apology from her mother and a small amount of cash to buy groceries for her and her brother. At this point, childhood abruptly pauses for an indeterminate amount of time and caring responsibilities become a priority.
As Rocks steps into survival mode, we see a shift in her attitude, outlook and behaviour. The freedom that all children have a right to has been taken away from her, and she is forced to take on the duties her mother has abandoned. Sadly, given the reaction to the note, it doesn’t appear to come as a huge shock so we can assume that something similar has happened before, or even that it could be a regular pattern.
Despite having a good group of friends and some supportive teachers, Rocks chooses to keep everything to herself and cobbles together ways of coping in order to hold on to her dignity (nobody wants people in school to find out that your mum walked out) and crucially, to stay close to her seven-year-old brother. Even with best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Rocks hides the full truth and plays down her reality. This loneliness and Rocks’ story of survival in an urban landscape evokes such pathos that it has the power to provide perspective on our own lives and circumstances, no matter how similar or distant they may be from the situation playing out on screen.
Besides the character Rocks, Sarah Gavron and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson use the wider cast to recognise other issues that further depict life as a teenage girl: dealing with a busy, chaotic household filled with too many occupants, having to move school due to bad behaviour, fitting in when you have a different accent and dialect to everyone else, feeling inadequate because of your academic set. Thanks largely to Bukky Bakray’s fantastic performance, Shola is the star, but the secondary characters that surround her are all given the space to show their personalities too. The dancing, language they use, way they behave (spoiler alert: it's not the image perpetuated by Hollywood of girls having pillow fights and waiting by the phone for boys to call), and way they support and forgive each other is one of the most honest and beautiful uses of the girl gaze committed to film. It’s rare that we see how girls see other girls, and for that alone, Rocks deserves all the acclaim from award boards, festival panels and film publications. Thank goodness it is getting the recognition it deserves in the form of seven BAFTA nominations, including 'Outstanding British Film of the Year'.
Sarah Gavron has captured contemporary life from the perspective of a British-Nigerian girl in this film, but beyond the struggles the girls face, it always comes back to the joys of youth and friendship. As the narrative turns in the third act and Rocks and her friendship group journey outside of London to the coast (to a place they say “looks like Italy”) their unwavering love for each other is infectious. It's a sisterhood you'll want in on.
Gavron's approach to filmmaking differed greatly on Rocks compared to her previous projects (Brick Lane and Suffragette) in that it had a much smaller budget, non-actors were cast, pre-production took place over two years - mostly spent talking to young girls so that she could really understand the world through their eyes, and, finally, the film was built around the girls who were cast and part-improvised. Not only that, but in an interview with iNews, Gavron said, "We had 75 per cent female crew... We wanted to get the girls to look behind the camera and see themselves in 10 years’ time and think, ‘I could be a writer, a producer or a cameraperson.’ It’s about creating the right environment and saying you are the storytellers.”
Whittled down to its bare bones, Rocks is a film about a young carer whose family is dissipating more quickly than she can control. This not only means that the central character is easy to sympathise with, but because of the presence of meaningful and authentic friendships, it leaves us with a feeling of hope and positivity. Rocks is truly a film about young women, for young women.
Verdict: Part-improvised and wholly compelling, Rocks is the story of Shola 'Rocks' Omotoso and an effortless depiction of British girlhood.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡
Watch the trailer here: