At its most simple, Sarah Gavron’s Rocks is a hard hitting drama about two siblings trying to manage when they are suddenly abandoned by their depressive mother, forced to fend for themselves in central London. It is in this setting, that Rocks proves itself a believable and honest snapshot of inner city life for families in low income housing estates across the county. A 93 minute glimpse at the kind of close knit and multicultured communities that spring out of both necessity and joint understanding. Although two unexpected and improvised performances lift up Rocks, its the depiction of this world and the many authentic voices that have breathed life into every frame that really imbues Rocks with a tangible credence.
When Gavron’s film opens Rocks (Bukky Bukray) is just a regular London teenager, whatever that might be. However when she picks up her brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and comes back she is welcomed by an empty flat, a note and a stack of cash, the last embrace of her too often absent mother. Her leaving isn’t a new occurrence, she’ll be back Rocks thinks. As the days pass the transition between ordinary teenager and parent blur as she struggles to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads as she grows increasingly more desperate, reticent to rely on the people around her with the last of her pride at stake.
Although Gavron’s film has a clear cut narrative, her story, written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, is spaced out with moments of seemingly innocuous/trivial activities that alone say very little about Rocks, her classmates or even her community but they quietly link together to tell the tale of a young girl who just wants to be exactly that, a teenager. While hard to ignore the bare bones outline of a story keeping the film moving, there are times that Rocks feels a little too empty. This story of a directionless girl forced into the role of responsible woman feels just as lost as she is. While the events she has to endure never diminishes her, you can’t say the same about Gavron’s picture, a patchwork quilt of a film in need of a design.
It’s how Gavron brings to life Rocks’ estate through inspired locations that make the city really stand out, not just from Rocks’ perspective but also through the eyes of those lucky enough to afford to see the city of glass and steel instead of one of grey concrete. The rooftops that she hangs out with her friends feel personal and the stunning cinematography places you inside her inner circle as they highlight the intimate make do nature of the places where the real growing up takes place for these young women, not the forced teaching Rocks’ mother has forced upon her.
Although based around Ikoko and Wilson’s script, this feels like a collaberative film in every way with every character displaying a different interpretation of growing up based on different things. Be it race, religion, sex or even your own personal aspirations, these characters are lived in thanks to insecurities and hopes that could only have come from a wide array of voices. Most of this comes from the film’s cast, a collection of newcomers, most of whom come from the kind of households and lives that Gavron wants to capture. While Bukray is the prideful light of Rocks, it is her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) who proves one of the more integral parts of Rocks, an empathetic young woman drowned out in a sea full of male relatives but boisterous and loyal when among friends.
It is in its discussion of race and sex that Gavron truly gets the most out of her young casts collaboration with the differences between her white classmate’s life and hers being just another stark reality that is treated as an uncomfortable norm. The surprising parts of Gavron’s film aren’t hidden in her story, for without the London scenery, authentic performances and lived in dialogue this is regrettably a conventional story that happens all too often. While it lacks flair and doesn’t feel the need to oversell its point. The real surprises come from this amateur cast. Bukray gamely underplays Rocks’ pain and indecision and Ali is pitch perfect, an awards worthy performance you could attribute to trained actors, made all the more impressive by her fresh, uncontrolled take.
Bringing an inner city pride and beauty of her film, Gavron has made a film that speaks to the pressure and joys of a new generation while never feeling disconnected from reality. The full and often vibrant landscape she has drawn out of this concrete jungle is at odds with the dour tones of films like Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You and I, Daniel Blake, which explore the same working class communities but in stark grey notes. Gavron wants her tale to be more hopeful, where these women have the chance to change their fates in a city that never glorifies their struggles but instead concentrates on the bright, rich colour and beauty of togetherness.