• Ben Keightley

Rocks (2020) - Sarah Gavron

Rocks opens with a group of young girls look out over a vista of London. They joke, tease, and are at ease with each other. With an opening like this, you could be forgiven for expecting Rocks to be a film about the abundance of opportunity that lays before these teenagers as they approach adulthood is one of the world's greatest cities. But Rocks isn't that film, it goes to extreme lengths to remind us that for many young people growing up in this city, the opportunities are limited and often non-existent, and just surviving is often far preoccupying and dreams will remain just that.

This is Olushola's story. Better known to her friends as Rocks, she is a force of nature, mature beyond her years, interested in a future as a make-up artist, and demonstrating great skill and potential. But as we will come to learn, Rocks' potential is going to be shaped by forces outside her control. She lives at home with her single mother and younger brother Emmanuel. When we first meet her family, Mum is cooking breakfast and there is an apparent unity and affection between them all. Though Rocks harbours an underlying suspicion about her mother's behaviour.

Returning home from school she discovers that her mother, struggling with mental health, has abandoned Rocks and left Emmanuel in her charge. A brief note and some money offer scant explanation and support. What unfolds over the course of 90 gripping, emotional, heartbreaking and surprisingly uplifting, and affecting minutes are the attempts of Rocks to keep her mother's disappearance from the authorities to avoid being taken into care and separated from Emmanuel.

Empathetically Directed by Sarah Gavron and with a script by Nigerian-British writer Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson the film provides exceptional levels of authenticity by virtue of the collaborative approach the creative forces took. Through workshops, open auditions and input from the cast (who are all incredible), the film feel genuine in a way any other approach would have found impossible to recreate. When hanging out with Rocks and her friends, there is a naturalness that feels organic and genuine. You truly believe these girls have grown up together. The camaraderie and intuition amongst them is startling. You feel it in the dialogue, in their behaviour, and in the intimacy between the friends. Even more so because the cast is made up of unknowns. Gavron and her creative team deserve immense credit for their approach and for engendering an environment that enabled Bukky Bakray as Rocks to deliver such depth of emotional range, and for it to emerge naturally. There is not a single forced moment in the entire story. You also sense the space and time Gavron gave her actors in scenes. There is never a rush to reach emotional points. Often scenes feel improvised, but in a way that has been so rigorously workshopped beforehand. Key moments (one involving Rocks being evicted from a hotel, another a raw, and rare argument between Rocks and best friend Sumaya (a mature performance far beyond her age and experience) are astonishing for their emotional truth.

Despite the arduous story Rocks finds herself on though, the film is delightful to watch for many reasons. Firstly, the friendship between Rocks and her classmates results in many great moments of levity, especially how they affectionately tease each other. There is a devotion and loyalty these girls exhibit, which even when misused draws you into the story and makes you fall in love with these characters. And Rocks relationship with her younger brother Emmanuel, who steals almost every scene, is one which is maternal and sisterly. Rocks has had to grow up quickly, but by being both a sister and a mother to Emmanuel the connection melts your heart. Especially as Rocks tries to navigate avoiding the authorities, shuttling from friend and to friend's house and trying to explain to Emmanuel why their mother isn't there and when she might return. It all makes the finale that much more heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting.

What's also handled brilliantly in the film is the difference between Rocks' family set up, and that of her friends, and how despite feeling like they know each other inside out, there are spaces and places friends are afraid to discuss with each other; even incapable of discussing with each other. It hits hard when Rocks, throwing herself on the mercy of her friend Sumaya, arrives at her house during a wedding. Sumaya is Somalian, and so a large family congregation is underway when she arrives; parents, siblings, extended family are all crammed into one house. It's unbearable to Rocks to witness, and impossible for Sumaya to understand how it affects Rocks who has no one. Her father is dead, and with her mother gone she has no family other than Emmanuel, making her reliance on the bond with him even stronger, and her fear of separation that much greater. She tries to hide this from her friend, and its a moment that says so much with so little. These friends have never had to confront their differences so deeply before, and neither is old enough or mature enough to navigate their feelings or their words.

Rocks in a masterpiece. It's a surprisingly hopeful film which through the power of its characters and performances delivers a film that elicits such deep affection as to make it overpowering in its emotional truth. The journey Rocks goes on may leave you broken and distraught, but ultimately, with its hopeful ending, you also feel empowered, by the strength Rocks shows and the power of her friendships, and for the potentially bright future these characters may have.

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