The first images we see in Rocks emphasise verticality. Cell phone footage, bordered by black bars, captures a rapturous gathering of girls on an outer London rooftop. The girls dance and shout with their exhilaration felt in the shakiness of the cell phone footage. Before long the image changes to a widescreen format. The blue skies surrounding the girls seem vast and we see them as they must feel – on top of the world. The scene ends as the camera pans to reveal central London’s skyline looming tall in the background, serving as a visual cue as to their true place on the social ladder. It is this tension, the assurance and joy from within their group against the looming pressures of British society, that is at the core of Rocks.
The film’s true focus is on one girl who gives the film its title, Rocks (Bukky Bakray). Of Nigerian heritage, an early scene shows Rocks enjoying a breakfast of yams and eggs with her mother and younger brother, Emmanuel (D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu) before the two go off to school. Over breakfast, Rocks enjoys winding her brother up, but when they later return to an empty house abandoned by their mother (there is a suggestion of mental illness), it is up to Rocks to take care of herself and Emmanuel.
The cinematography, beautifully realised by Hélène Louvart, is reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s films in the intimacy of the camera. Tightly framed, the camera keeps us close to Rocks as she tries to hide her mother’s disappearance from adults who might alert social services. Such camera work has the potential to feel claustrophobic but instead rather brilliantly captures the events from the perspectives of Rocks and her friend group. Adults feature in Rocks’ world in much the same way as the London skyline in the opening scene – hovering in the peripheries but never entering their world. As the girls shuffle into school one teacher picks out girls who break the dress code by wearing jewellery and makeup. When in class, the girls are asked what future careers interest them. The greatest impact the teacher makes is suggesting one of Rocks’ friends has ‘a backup’ for her aspirations of being a lawyer.
In contrast to these scenes, it is when the girls are amongst themselves that their individuality truly flourishes. It is the diversity of the cast which will draw headlines, especially with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The film industry (once again), is asking questions about diversity both in front and behind the camera. The cast was found through a number of workshops, with a statement in the credits signalling the collaborative roles the cast played in the production. The impact of this collaboration shines bright as the chemistry between Rocks and her friends feels lively and sincere. Despite the bleak subject matter, Rocks consistently put a smile on my face in the many jovial scenes throughout the film.
In fact, it is Rocks’ friendships which prove to be the support she needs – her rock(s) if you will. Rocks must learn that despite her strong demeanour, her true strength lies in her friendships. The film ultimately finds its conclusion only when social services inevitably get involved. If there is one weakness to the film, it’s its own blind faith in the same social system which allows Rocks to be in such a precarious situation to begin with.
A true exercise in diverse filmmaking executed from the ground up, Rocks should be an example of how the industry can make amends for its marginalisation of ethnic minorities. Rocks is more than a diversity exercise though and it’s the emotional core of the film, brilliantly performed by its fantastic cast, which will make sure the film stands the test of time.
Words by Jake Ola Jide Abatan