Original illustration by Emma Tolhurst.
“I cannot trust mummy,” says Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), the younger brother of protagonist Olushola/ ‘Rocks’ (Bukky Bakray). As innocuous as this may seem in the context of choosing birthday presents, this sense of distrust lingers throughout Rocks, a coming-of-age film directed by Sarah Gavron which has recently been released in cinemas. When Rocks’ mother suddenly decides to leave one day without warning, Rocks is thrust into the role of the parent, having to juggle looking after herself and Emmanuel and attending school. Not only does this lead her to reject the importance of a maternal figure in her life, but it also results in her questioning her friendships, as she tricks herself into believing that she can exist on her own and depend on no one.
In spite of Rocks’ determination to suppress her feelings, this film is full of rich emotional moments as the viewer is provided with an intimate look into Rocks’ financial struggle, loving relationship with her brother and encounters with the foster care system. These depictions are made particularly touching by the cinematography of Hélène Louvart, who often shot scenes using only one camera in order to make them more intimate for both the actors and the audience.
Moreover, whilst Rocks finds it hard to trust those around her within the film, Rocks itself stands out for its honesty. From Rocks struggling to put a tampon in, to dress-code violations in the form of jewellery, make-up and trainers, the film certainly doesn’t attempt to gloss over any of the common occurrences of the life of a teenage girl. In fact, although it’s initially jarring to hear people talk about Instagram and Snapchat on the big screen, the film is often filmed through the lens of Snapchat stories, convincing the audience of its authenticity as a portrayal of school life in 2020.
Perhaps most refreshingly, though, Rocks presents London as London. Whilst Richard Curtis films are so often viewed as quintessentially Londonesque, his tendency to focus on white middle class Hugh Grant types leaves Londoners sometimes questioning if he’s ever actually been to Notting Hill. By contrast, Rocks incorporates a variety of races and cultures in order to truly reflect the capital’s diverse population in a similar vein to Michaela Coel’s recent series I May Destroy You. British-Nigerian Rocks’ closest friends come from many different backgrounds — Bangladesh, Congo, Ghana, Polish Romani and Nigeria— but they are by no means pigeonholed as stereotypes of their respective nationalities. Rather, when Rocks calls out her best-friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), a British-Somalian Muslim, for wearing Air Force trainers with her prayer dress, this epitomises how the film does not ignore the importance of race, religion and culture but also refuses to adopt a sanctimonious tone regarding these topics, simply presenting the audience with an honest portrayal of multicultural London.
The authentic feel of this film is indisputably at least in part due to the atypical approach of writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson. They discussed different ideas with the cast collaboratively, developing the plot through workshops, and visited the actors in their homes in the run-up to shooting to form the models for their characters’ houses and families on the big screen.
Much of the core cast, including Bakray herself, had no professional acting experience prior to this film. In fact, Gavron scouted Bakray while she was at school, observing her charisma from the back of the classroom and incorporating it into the energy of the film. However, there is no point in Rocks which gives Bakray away as a novice; on the contrary, several moments are so convincingly real that the film could be mistaken for a documentary on Rocks’ life. This is a testament not only to Bakray’s impeccable acting skills but also to Ikoko and Wilson’s impressive ability to observe real exchanges and reflect them so precisely on the big screen.
Yet, the realism of this film in no way dilutes the deep connections between characters; instead, it encourages the viewer to acknowledge the legitimacy of these bonds. ‘Real queens fix each other’s crowns’ is stuck up on Rocks’ wall and, although this could feasibly be found in any teenage girl’s bedroom, this idea comes to powerfully encapsulate the relationship between Rocks and her friends over the course of the film. When she is faced with the absence of parental support, it is her friends who adopt the role of her family.
Everyone should watch Rocks. Whilst the sheer abundance of coming-of-age films means that it’s easy to see the same old tropes being recycled throughout the genre, the raw presentations of family and friendships in this film solidify it as a tear-jerking, life-affirming triumph.