London Film Festival 2019 – Rocks

Writer: Theresa Ikoko

Director: Sarah Gavron

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

One of the greatest things about the London Film Festival is the chance to see new perspectives and particularly movies by homegrown talent. These films don’t always attract big distribution deals or star names, but they are a celebration of everything that the British Film Industry can be with new writers, directors and actors who are inspired to see the world a little differently. Rocks which opened to much acclaim in Toronto certainly makes its mark in London with an affecting and, at times, very moving portrait of teenage friendship.

Rocks and her brother Emmanuel are abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves. When the money runs out and with no electricity in their tower-block flat, Rocks relies on her schoolfriends to help evade Social Services who will surely separate the siblings. When a new girl arrives at school, Rocks makes a fateful decision that sets her at odds with friends and teachers alike.

Sarah Gavron’s beautiful film understands the teenage perspective so well and, developed through months of workshops with the cast and others, authentically captures the energy, creativity and fierce loyalty of young women in their tightly knit circles. What Gavron and writer Theresa Ikoko do so well is to then introduce a heavy burden of adult responsibility which forces the title character to shoulder a burden far beyond her years and it is her attempts to do what she thinks is the right thing for her family that make this film such a powerful experience.

Because at heart, Rocks is just a nice young woman trying her best, dreaming of being a make-up artist and enjoying time with her friends but unexpectedly forced to make difficult decisions that for a short time upend everything she knows. The way in which Gavron evokes the cornered reality of Rocks’ situation, of the mighty system pitted against the individual regardless of circumstance has considerable resonance with films such as I, Daniel Blake that equally exposed the heartlessness of governmental approaches to social care.

But Gavron’s film is far more hopeful than Ken Loach, and there is a tone of optimism that feeds through Rocks as it showcases the bravery and spirit of a group of young women who want more. The use of unknown actors and the intensive preparatory process has resulted in a diverse group that feel like friends, a recognisable bond that undergoes disagreements, jealousy, resentment and Rocks’ withdrawal into herself, but the solid friendship remains.

Bukky Bakray makes an impressive debut as Rocks, handling Gavron’s intense close-ups and the weighty subject-matter with skill while allowing the audience to feel the heaviness of the responsibility placed on her shoulders, as well as the stifled fun of the ordinary teenager she is underneath. D’angelou Osei Kissiedu has most of the humour as sulky little brother Emmanuel, while Kosar Ali, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Afi Okaidja and Anastasia Dymitrow make up the rest of the gang, each with their own distinct perspective and personality.

The hubbub of London school life in all its diversity contrasts subtly with the almost all-white playground in Hastings later in the film, and like last year’s Netflix drama Been So Long, Rocks feels more like the London we all know. It will make you and laugh and will almost certainly make you cry but Rocks is what the London Film Festival is all about, inspiring filmmaking and a new perspective on who we are.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October

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A powerful experience

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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