Sarah Gavron’s all-girl story is a crashing success


Source: Toronto International Film Festival


Dir. Sarah Gavron. UK. 2019. 93 mins

There’s a crackling, raucous energy to Sarah Gavron’s dynamic TIFF Platform opener, Rocks. It’s an energy that brilliantly conveys the jostling of still-forming personalities in a group of teenage girls. At the heart of the story is Rocks (Bukky Bakray), a fifteen-year-old with a crew of close friends and ambitions to run her own business. But Rocks (whose real name is Olushola) is forced to grow up quickly when her mother disappears, leaving Rocks with her younger brother, an envelope of cash and a note saying “sorry”. A deft balance of drama, humour and hormonal adolescent huffs, Rocks is a real treat: full of warmth, honesty and authenticity.

Gavron and her predominantly female crew create a sense of real life unfolding in front of the camera

That authenticity was earned by an extensive period of research and workshopping with young Londoners across girls’ comprehensives and youth hubs. As such, it’s not just a film about young women of colour, it’s a film which placed them at the very centre of the filmmaking process from development onwards. It’s their film, and, marketed astutely, it could speak to a generation of girls who rarely see themselves accurately represented in cinema. The appeal of the picture goes beyond the core demographic of adolescent females however: it should have a healthy festival run and could connect with the same arthouse audiences that responded to films like Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood and Laurent Cantet’s The Class. One possible barrier to distribution overseas might be the London teen vernacular which can prove slightly impenetrable at times. But there’s nothing that a judicious spot of subtitling couldn’t fix.

A punchy melting pot of music choices on the score reflects the cultural mix of the East London girls’ school that Rocks attends. On the first day back after the summer, the girls are vetted for uniform violations. Rocks has a slightly panicked debate about tampons with her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali, excellent). A careers counsellor asks about their plans for the future. There’s nothing to suggest that the day is out of the ordinary. But when Rocks gets home with her seven-year-old brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), her mother is nowhere to be found. Even so, Rocks is not unduly worried. This has happened before, after all. But when the money runs out, and the neighbours start to talk, Rocks finds it increasingly hard to put on a brave face . Worse, the bonds of her closest friendships are stretched to breaking point. She’s drawn to the new student at school, Roshé (an eye-catching turn from Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), a girl with a wild streak and a willingness to take risks.

Gavron and her predominantly female crew create a sense of real life unfolding in front of the camera, something which is heightened by phone footage which is woven into the film. Her handling of these predominantly non-professional child actors is sensitive; the performances that result are limber, natural and utterly persuasive. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, whose credits include Happy As Lazarro and The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, has a sharp eye for telling little details: the way that Rocks wraps her hands up in the sleeves of her cardigan in times of stress; the abandoned dinosaur stickers on the wall of her brother’s room.

Perhaps the most impressive element is the way that the picture so deftly juggles its tonal shifts. Rocks is as mercurial and complex as any moody teenager can be, veering from hilarity to misery and back again in seconds. There are wrenchingly sad moments in this story, but what’s telling is that the scenes that really stay with us are the ones showing joy and hope: the infectious fun of an afro beat dance class at school; the engagement celebration gatecrashed by Rocks, her brother and a pet frog.

Production company: Fable Pictures

International Sales: Altitude Film Sales

Producers: Faye Ward, Ameenah Ayub Allen

Screenplay: Theresa Ikoko, Claire Wilson

Production Design: Alice Normington

Editing: Maya Maffioli

Cinematography: Hélène Louvart

Music: Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch

Main cast: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow, Afi Okaidja, Sarah Niles