There has always been an enormous pressure on teenage girls to mature beyond their years, much more so than their male counterparts. This is usually pinned down to either biology or the existence of archaic gender roles but nevertheless, it results in girls spending more time picking up on the caregiving and domestic responsibilities often expected of adults. This pressure put on young girls to mature quickly and take on emotional labour at home is something explored wonderfully by director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, Suffragette) in her latest feature film Rocks, an emotional, astute, and authentic look at modern girlhood.
Photo © Rocks
Popular for her makeup artistry and for doing girls’ eyebrows at lunchtime for only £2, 15-year-old Shola Omotoso (Bukky Bakray) is known at her east-London school as the bubbly, chatty, and confident ‘Rocks’. However, at home, she’s dealing with the monumental weight of an inconsistent mother who’s wrestling with mental health problems. One day after school, Rocks returns home to find that her mum has gone. Leaving behind a note, Rocks’ mum claims to need some space and has gone away for a while to recuperate herself; leaving Rocks a handful of cash and the huge responsibility of looking after her seven-year-old brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). It’s not the first time Rocks’ mum has done this, but Rocks avoids seeking help; insisting the situation is fine and that ‘she’ll be back soon’. But this time it’s different, Rocks quickly runs out of money and her electricity soon gets shut off. With every call to Rocks’ mum’s phone going straight to voicemail and with child services as the door, Rocks and Emmanuel must alternate between staying at friends’ houses and cheap hotels to survive.
Photo © Rocks
British-Nigerian writer Theresa Ikoko described the script as a love letter to her older sister and Black women; which is clear in her nuanced and caring approach to Rocks and her group of friends. Illustrating the beauty of sisterhood and the power of female friendships in the formative years, Ikoko wonderfully manages to balance tragedy with brilliant moments of naïve joy and laughter that are so innate to adolescence. From food fights to real fights to jubilant moments such as the girls dancing around on a rooftop belting Tina Turner at the top of their lungs, Ikoko demonstrates a sensitive understanding of the duality of the teenage girl experience. Mixed in with a healthy dose of improvisation, Gavron was certain that the girls would have freedom in their performances, Rocks whips up a heartfelt, refreshing and simultaneously personal and relatable coming-of-age tale.
Not just exploring general experiences of girlhood, Rocks examines experiences specific to young Black women in Britain. From racist remarks from hotel managers to microaggressions in the classroom – ‘you’ll have to get your grades up if you want to be a lawyer’ a teacher warns one young woman of colour while a white student is praised for her ambition to be a journalist – to the pressure put on Rocks to keep things together and maintain a brave face at school. “It shows what people go through – how women of colour are taught to have a hard exterior” remarks Kosar Ali who portrays Rocks’ best friend, Sumaya.
Photo © Rocks
Watching Bakray tactfully capture the complexity of a character like Rocks – one who is upbeat and spirited on the outside but hurting and conflicted on the inside – it’s hard to believe that Bakray is a first-time actor. Yet, like most of the cast, Bakray was scouted from her classroom in Hackney when casting directors visited schools and youth clubs across London where they ran workshops looking for talent. During the process, casting directors met over 1000 girls – finally finding the perfect group of girls who instinctively started to bond a friendship group. Resulting from this, comes a natural and tangible depiction of youth and friendship. Writing dialogue for teenagers can often be tricky, as can be building believable and realistic performances at such an age, but both cast and crew come together to build one of the most vivid and graceful portrayals of female adolescence in recent cinema.
Rocks is a stirring and detailed view of girlhood, family, and friendship. Focusing on the emotional maturity expected of teenage girls and specifically the adultification of young Black girls, Ikoko and Gavron join forces to create a stunningly sensitive and powerful piece of cinema. Managing to create a story that is both heart-wrenching and ecstatically joyous, Rocks is one of the most emotionally intelligent and refreshing films to be released this year.
Written by Abi Aherne