Words by May Garland
Filmed documentary-style with a cast of mostly non-professional actors from the local area, and observed through the eyes of an unusual heroine Shola, Sarah Gavron’s ‘Rocks’ is a look into the urban youth culture of Hackney and the creative souls that reside in its underbelly.
This coming-of-age story draws us into a working-class neighbourhood in East London as we witness the jovial lives of teenagers through their phone screens and comical Snapchat filters. ‘Rocks’ opens with a tone of optimism, showing us the limitless potential of the secondary school students. When discussing their future aspirations in a lesson, one girl is adamant that she is “going to be the new Picasso” and we want to believe her. This scene gave me flashbacks to my own school days, where my only concerns were handing in my homework on time and avoiding the scrutiny of the teachers, as they barked and bitched at us to sort our uniforms out. However, for sixteen-year-old Shola (played by Bukky Bakray), her life is changed by one scribbled note from her mum.
The sixteen-year-old protagonist quickly loses her youthful innocence when her mum leaves for the inevitable future and leaves Shola to care for her younger brother Emmanuel (played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) with only a handful of cash to barely cover the grocery bill. The harsh reality of adult pressures and the responsibility of acting as parent, force Shola to put up boundaries and isolate herself from her friends. Shola is desperate to not raise suspicion of her living circumstances; however, despite her efforts, social services are alerted and Shola must go on the run to keep herself and her brother from being separated.
Our heroine, nicknamed ‘Rocks’ by her friends for her compassionate and resilient nature, uses her strong will to navigate the adult world without money or a stable home. Bakray’s mature acting allows us to view the struggles of adulthood through the lens of adolescence. She was the youngest nominee for the Best Actress in a Leading Role and received the BAFTA Rising Star Award.
Ultimately, Rocks and her brother are put into separate foster homes. The emotive separation of the siblings is made even more painful when we see the confusion in her younger brother’s tearful face. Nevertheless, Gavron subverts the poverty-leading-to-crime narrative and instead gives us an uplifting takeaway from the film. The strong bonds of friendship are the pillar to this story and give Rocks the emotional support she needs to reach out to her brother. As stated on Rocks’ wall at home, “real queens fix each other’s crowns”. As soon as Rocks reunites with her peers, she can overcome her adversities.
The end scene also brings back the infectious spirit of the friends in a montage of social media videos - and nothing is more entertaining than using the dog filter on Snapchat! The unity displayed in the movie echoes the community spirit of Hackney that is known for its rich diversity and creative hub of vibrant youth culture. However, this area is becoming increasingly at risk of gentrification. As we have seen from Rocks’ experience, the different communities and friendships that exist in this borough are essential to the locals’ lives and something that needs to be protected.
Under Gavron’s direction, the film possesses a documentary quality that adds an edge of rawness to Rocks’ story. Gavron combines the social and emotional consequences of parental abandonment with themes of identity, friendship and a new definition of family. I would recommend this film for its overall empowering message, but also for its heart-warming and comical moments that have made me nostalgic for the days of school food fights and lunchtime chats.