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Film Review: Rocks

19 October 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Rocks is a riotous riot of pure girl power, writes Roshan Chandy...

Director: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu
Running time: 93 minutes

Rocks (2020) is a tragicomic fable that really captures all the glories and grotesqueries of growing up. Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, Suffragette) and co-scripted by playwright Theresa Ikoko and film and TV writer Claire Wilson, the film combines the bare-knuckle brutality of East End deprivation with the kindred spirit of pure girl power. It has a genuine sense of light and dark which is essential for any film about childhood and adolescence.

Rocks takes its title from the cartoony nom de guerre accorded to its teenage East Londoner protagonist Shola Omotoso (Bukky Bakray). She’s 15, half Nigerian, half Jamaican and hangs out with a group of girls - Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Agnes (Ruby Stokes), Khadijah (Tawheda Begum), Yawa (Afi Okaidja) and Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow).

Rocks lives on a council estate with her single mother Funke (Layo-Christina Akinlude) and younger brother Emmanuel (D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu). One day, Rocks comes home to a pathetically apologetic note from her depression-suffering mother saying she has left because she needed to “clear her head”.

Desperate to avoid being put into care, Rocks and Emmanuel find themselves shuttling endlessly between chintzy hotels and friends’ houses. Meanwhile the arrival of a prim and pretty new student from Nottingham named Roshe (Nottingham-born Shaneigha Monik-Greyson) provokes violent jealousy amongst the girls…

Shot on shaky and seemingly hand-held lenses, everything about Rocks smacks of authenticity. Its induced documentary style is amplified by Snapchat posts of the girls singing along to Shirley Caesar’s You Name It on a train. 

Standouts include Nottingham’s very own Shaneigha Monik-Greyson, who is always handsy for a fight

The dialogue is an eclectic blend of Multicultural London English and regional pronunciations. For example, Roshe is mocked for using the word “buum” (insert East Midlands vowels) for “nice”. Simultaneously the opening sequence - featuring the five girls upon a rooftop - mimics real-life by having multiple characters talking over each other.

The film’s soundtrack is minimal and absent throughout a vast majority of the runtime. However music plays an integral part in emphasising the movie’s darker moments. During the scene where Emmanuel is taken into care, the piano amps up Rocks’s tears, anger and pain at separation.

On the strength of this scene, Director Gavron matches Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) for gritty social realism. Yet Rocks doesn’t wallow in misery. A classroom Malawah fight has the slapstick silliness of a Buster Keaton caper. Then a sunny day at the beach calls to mind the more joyous elements of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (2015).

Born out of a monopoly of TV and film workshops, the young cast is simply superb. Bukky Bakray encapsulates Rocks’s anguish and heartbreak and her scenes with Emmanuel are guaranteed tear-jerkers. 

Other standouts include Nottingham’s very own Shaneigha Monik-Greyson, who is always handsy for a fight as Roshe. It’s interesting too that the roughest girl on the block should come from Nottingham. A subtle nod to the city’s reputation as the gun capital of the UK, and the statistics that once dubbed us “Shottingham”?

Rocks firmly establishes Sarah Gavron as the mistress of British “feel-good realism”. As she did with her excellent women’s suffrage drama ‘Suffragette’, Gavron has an eye for making social justice accessible. And this warm, witty, wonderful film does exactly that.

Rocks is available now on Netflix

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