After making a splash with its premiere last year at TIFF, and hot on the heels of its lead actress Bukky Bukray being named a BAFTA Breakthrough Artist for 2020, the drama Rocks came to VOD on Dec 1st, 2020. It’s a film inhabited by non-actors in front of the camera that are guided by the experienced hand of Director Sarah Gavron, herself, not a stranger to telling stories of girls of color growing up in London with her feature debut Brick Lane, though the stories are vastly different and don’t even share the same time period.
Shola (Bukray), a would-be cosmetologist who uses her fellow students as her client base, is known by practically everyone as simply Rocks. Rocks’ typical teenage existence takes a dramatic turn when upon returning home one day she finds a small amount of cash and a note from her mother stating she can no longer handle caring for both her and her younger brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). Refusing to believe that her mother has left for good and will return, Rocks refuses to tell any other adult, despite advice from her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) and others that she should do so. And after a neighbor calls child protective services, Rocks starts making some risky decisions.
Rocks has a story similar to films we’ve seen before. The running away from authority and finding ways to live after the loss of a parent is a tale that has been played for drama or even comedy before onscreen, and the story here does hit some beats that audiences will find familiar. The film also suffers a bit because of how much love it has for its characters, and this love never lets it really put Rocks or Emmanuel in any real life threatening danger. It’s pretty safe and even makes sure to angle for the pseudo happy ending.
That said, where Rocks succeeds greatly is in its authenticity. While we may be able to see where the film is headed well before it gets there, there is never a second where the main set of girls that anchor this film ever feels any less than 100% authentic. Many times, the film feels more like a documentary than a fictional piece of work, which is also a testament to the trust and bond that Gavron was able to develop with her cast of newcomers.
The film is grounded and revolves around 3 performances. Bakray’s Rocks is a hustler, dreamer, and fierce mama bear level protector of Emmanuel. But Rocks’ tough exterior does not allow anyone else in once she goes purely on the defensive, and the inexperienced Bakray manages to mine the depths of her belief and refusal to accept the consequences of what her decisions bring. It’s a fantastic performance that has rightfully brought Bakray much acclaim.
But it’s actually outshined by the assured and brilliant performance of Kosar Ali as her best friend Samaya. The wonderfully nuanced and thoughtful performance from Ali shows the depths of the friendships the gregarious Rocks has cultivated through school and the lengths that those friends will go to help. Even as Rocks lashes out, it’s Samaya, through Ali, that recognizes what’s happening well before her friend does. Kissiedu also shines as Emmanuel, Rocks’ little brother who always manages to keep his level of rambunctiousness high.
The setting of London is both integral and inconsequential, as the city almost becomes a supporting character at times, yet all the while, the authenticity of the performers almost gives the film a universal appeal. Ultimately, the film still stays a little too safe to its own detriment. It’s not that the audience wants Rocks and Emmanuel to suffer, but there’s also never really a point where you feel they are in real danger either. But story aside, the performers here are just oozing authenticity with everything they do, which makes the predictable parts of the ride much more bearable.
Rent Rocks at https://digital.tiff.net/.
- Rated: PG
- Genre: Coming of Age, Drama, Teen Drama
- Release Date: 12/01/2020
- Directed by: Sarah Gavron
- Starring: Bukky Bakray, D'angelou Oesi Kissiedu, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson
- Produced by: Ameenah Ayub Allen, Emma Duffy, Faye Ward, Hannah Farrell, Sarah Gavron, Will Clarke
- Written by: Claire Wilson, Theresa Ikoko
- Studio: levelFILM