With her fourth feature, director Sarah Gavron offers up one of the year’s best British films. Developed and written organically in collaboration with its young cast, Rocks is a faultlessly authentic study of contemporary young life in the inner city.
After Shola ‘Rocks’ (Bukky Bakray) mother disappears leaving only a note of apology and a small amount of cash, she is left to fend for herself and eight-year old brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). Dodging social workers at home and dwindling living funds, Rocks still has to face the regular trials of teenage social and school life.
Though its London setting is important, Rocks succeeds as a universal depiction of working-class, urban youth culture, speaking to kids from Nottingham, Manchester or Leeds just as much as those south of the Watford gap. Moreover, while other films released this year dealing with similar themes – Blue Story and Real (both important pictures in their own right) – were rooted to some extent in familiar crime narratives, Rocks is one of the few films of its kind concerned with economic deprivation as a social factor as opposed to a criminal one.
Deprivation is a key thematic concern, but Gavron avoids a simple poverty-leading-to-crime narrative to instead explore its social and emotional consequences. No doubt this arose from her female-led cast, who led the direction of the narrative and are, to a person, brilliant. It feels unfair to single out any one performances as outstanding, but Bakray as Rocks and best friend Sumaya, played by Kusar Ali deserve special mention.
So believable are the cast in their roles that some scenes border on documentary, a clear consequence of drawing on the performers’ own experiences. Rocks’ bottled-up anger and despair plays across a face weary beyond her years, while anyone who has ever worked with teenagers will instantly recognise the sharp, cutting wit of Sumaya’s over-it expressions. Kissiedu, too, needs acknowledgement as Emmanuel, whose naturalism is utterly convincing as a loving, funny but exhausting eight-year old.
Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is somehow both intimate and guarded, hovering in doorways one minute and then embracing its subjects in moments of emotional intensity the next. There’s a quotidian feel to the visuals that underscore the tiring banality of Rocks’ tribulations, capturing but never overstating the film’s moments of humour, catharsis and loss.
As a rich and authentic study of teen experience Rocks is one of the most important films to come out this year, yet avoiding narrative cliche and sentimental contrivance it is neither worthy nor forced, as affirming and affectionate as it is concerned with the lives of its subjects.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm