Review: Rocks

***½

Made with a 75% female cast and crew, and a unique development process that began not with a script, but with a casting process that scoured East London schools for first-time actors capable of conveying the ideas and themes the filmmakers wished to explore, Rocks is certainly a film with an unconventional entry into the world. Written with the help of workshops with the young cast, it tells the story of 15-year-old ‘Rocks’ (Bukky Bakray), who is forced to fend for herself as well as her younger brother when their single mother suddenly vanishes, leaving only a note of apology and an envelope of cash.

The best part of Rocks is undoubtedly the performances of the young actors, which are unfailingly believable and compelling. In particular, Bakray and Kosar Ali (playing Rock’s best friend Sumaya) give wonderfully emotive performances. The chemistry between the girls in Rocks’ friendship group feels raw and authentic, and the relationship between Rocks and her brother Emmanuel – essentially the core of the film – is genuine and engaging. It’s disappointing there is not more development of the relationship between Rocks and Sumaya, with far more time being spent on the far less compelling relationship Rocks has with new girl Roshé.

The film’s close focus on Rocks ensure the audience sees her situation as she does. We might think on an intellectual level that her actions (such as avoiding her social worker) are ill-advised, but we are made to feel – as Rocks does – that her actions are in the best interests of her and Emmanuel. We too see the social worker as a threat. This displays perhaps the film’s biggest success: creating the circumstances in which a wide audience can fully empathise with a protagonist in a situation far outside of their experience, by simultaneously allowing her to make mistakes consistent with her young age and also showing clearly how these actions make sense to her. Rocks is very much a film with a message, and the empathy shown towards its marginalised protagonist is that message. The skill with which the filmmakers are able to bring the audience to its protagonist’s perspective allows Rocks to create a sense of empathy in its audience for those in similar situations to its protagonist.

One aspect of the film handled with somewhat less panache is the humour. While the wonderfully real interactions between members of the central friendship group do provoke a laugh now and again, the dialogue between them could have still been funnier. On the other hand, the film’s depiction of teen female friendship is both realistic and fun, and obviously pulls strongly from real-life experiences.

Realistic, heartfelt, and featuring some stunning performances from first-time actors with the potential for long and successful careers, Rocks is an effective and engaging portrayal of the struggles of vulnerable teens. Though the ending leaves open some issues that would have benefited from development and resolution, the film succeeds in giving a warm and sympathetic look at the lives of a group of young black girls in Britain today.

Rocks opens in UK cinemas on 18th September 2020.