Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson
Sarah Gavron first came to my attention with her quirky, singular documentary on life in a remote Greenland hamlet, Village at the End of the World. That film prominently featured a young man often dissatisfied and at odds with his environment. Gavron’s latest – a narrative feature which forefronts non or first-time actors in many roles – continues a trend of examining youth and habitat. While Rocks may run the course of a fictional framework, it thrives from a buzzing sense of the true. If this isn’t real life, it’s thrillingly adjacent to it. It’s also clearly a participatory feature. The democratic end credit crawl takes time to acknowledge that the cast were all involved in the creation of their characters. Collaboration is also key here.
Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso (Bukky Bakray) lives in a London council flat, spending much of her free time as many kids her age do; hanging out with friends. Together they also attend urban dance lessons. The film opens with the group of them up on the roof, staring out at the skyline of the distant financial district, setting their sights on the future, while scenes from school find Rocks and her classmates quizzed over their dream jobs. Potentiality is heady in the air from the start, though their teacher sagely councils to, “Always have a plan B”.
What sounds in the moment like downer pragmatism transpires to be a little piece of foreshadowing. Rocks returns home to find she has been abandoned by her mother, left to take care of her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) by herself. Life has quickly gotten more complicated. With unspoken nous about the divisive consequences of protective services, Rocks’ immediate instinct is to hide this growing crisis. Her best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali), helps her, but their bonds quickly become frayed.
Gavron thankfully eschews the assumed trajectory of spiraling misery that often typifies such kitchen-sink dramas, the worst of which treat urban poverty as a kind of exploitation subgenre. Rocks raises concerns over broken systems – only naturally – but it doesn’t commit to a brow-beaten mentality. Nor does it simplistically wag the finger at a failing state. Instead, quite the opposite attitude manages to present itself, in spite of intimidating circumstance faced by Rocks.
Consider, for instance, a home economics lesson that grows confrontational before turning into an all-out food fight. Gavron jumps to the kids being marched out, doused in cake mix. They’re in trouble but they smirk, happy to have collectively raised mischief. This in itself is a fulcrum of Rocks‘ considerable charm. It is as much about the irrepressible spirit of youth; a pushy, promising ‘can do’ attitude whether the task at hand is responsibility or rebellion. The film’s third act expands on this further, with a mini-adventure that is both spirited and touching. Again Rocks tilts toward optimism. Not just in the outcomes of tribulations, but in the generation coming to the fore.
The young cast are sublime. Bakray has the lion’s work to do, but she channels that sense of burden into Rocks’ stubbornness. Ali’s Sumaya is never anything less than believable; the child actor evoking a more tentative, thoughtful character, while Shaneigha-Monik Greyson throws in some outsider sass as new-kid-on-the-block Roshé; the proximity of her name to Shola’s favoured moniker marking them out as kindred spirits bound to antagonise one another.
Rocks has leapt from a too-limited theatrical run straight onto Netflix as part of their October spotlight for Black Stories. Who knows how long it will remain on the streaming platform, so my advice would be to get to it as a priority. In truth this movie has no one colour. It’s multinational cast compliments its dexterity across the board. A shot of energy to British filmmaking.