‘Rocks’: An essential film about the Black British experience

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The coming-of-age story is a cinematic staple that can be moulded to fit any aspect of society, with director Sarah Gavron’s Rocks shining a light on an experience that very rarely serves as the backdrop to a feature film.

Co-written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, the story follows Bukky Bakray’s Olushola Omotoso, who earns the titular nickname from her friends because she’s the reliable, dependable, and rocksteady member of their group. However, when she’s thrust into the role of caregiver to her younger brother Emmanuelle, she struggles to deal with the upheaval.

Rocks returns home from school to find a note from her mother saying she needs to clear her head, leaving her with a small amount of money to keep the household running in her absence. Instead of seeking help, she decides to take on the burden alone, only informing Kosar Ali’s Sumaya of her situation.

Modern British cinema boasts plenty of stories set in and around East London that focus on the harsh and often unforgiving socio-economic realities of the population, but Rocks winningly forsakes miserabilism in favour of focusing on the power of friendship. Rocks and Emmanuelle may be forced to contend with social services, prying eyes, a new student who threatens to divide the group, and the lingering resentment often associated with disparate backgrounds of peer groups, but the bond between Rocks and her closest confidants is unwavering.

Gavron assembled a group of almost entirely non-professional actors for the cast, many of whom were making their on-camera debuts. As well as adding an air of authenticity and realism to the film, that carefree spirit is key to Rocks finding its voice. A love letter to the fostered sense of closeness and community of the Black girls at the centre of its narrative, there’s joy and empathy to be found in equal measure as the movie deftly toes the line between its serious subject matter and the freewheeling exuberance of youth.

The issues touched on throughout its 93 minutes range from child neglect, bullying, and mental health to racism, peer pressure, and identity, but never once is it presented as heavy-handed, cloying, or overly sentimental. Instead, the strength of the characters and the unbreakable bond of friendship continually shines through, painting a vibrant portrait of not only the Black experience in modern Britain but zeroing in on that of teenage girls.

The script and storyline were developed through workshops with the cast, crew, and creative team, and that collaborative spirit is on full display. There’s a loose and unburdened nature to Rocks, reflective of both how the film was crafted, and the way it seeks to open a window into a slice of life that’s very rarely given the freedom to inspire an essential full-length feature.

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