As you are likely aware, Netflix uses three adjectives to describe any film on its website. One of the words used to describe the 2020 release Rocks is gritty. The premise of the film also suggests a very serious, hard- hitting drama.
The film centres on a 15 year old black British girl called Olushola “Rocks” Omotoso, living in Hackney, London. She is left to fend for herself and her younger brother after her mentally ill, single mother abandons them. They are left with barely enough money to get through the week and soon after their mother’s disappearance, social services are knocking on their doors – Rocks will do anything to avoid their call.
From that synopsis alone, it was expected for this film to be tragic, similar to another British drama, Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’. All of these descriptions of the film failed to capture how delightful ‘Rocks’ actually is. The film balances comedy and pathos perfectly, with joyful moments that will make a viewer’s heart swell. Of course, however, due to its subject matter, ‘Rocks’ is equally quietly devastating. This is a rare film in that it could be described as a heartwarming tear-jerker.
Much of the joy can be found within the group of girls that surrounds Rocks in the film. They attend an all girls school, and the depiction of such a school will ring true to anyone who has ever attended one. All the familiar, strict prohibitions against hoop earrings, nail polish and mobile phone use are included.
The friends have plenty of fun together; they dance, they have food fights in class, they go to the beach. The viewer fully believes all of these girls are truly friends. All of these performances, from young, first time actors, pop off the screen. The lead performance of Bukky Bakray is especially impressive. Rocks is emotionally closed off and independent to a fault and Bakray nails the reticence and stubbornness of the character.
What stands out about the film is how authentic it feels. It is clear that the filmmakers put a lot of effort into making ‘Rocks’ feel as naturalistic as possible. Mobile phone footage of the friends messing around features from time to time. Some scenes are even shot in a documentary style; the camera focuses on all of the girls talking over each other, until there is a cacophony of voices and you are no longer sure what each individual is saying. The realism of this film is what compels the viewer to become emotionally invested in it and to believe that the people on screen before them are real.
The social commentary of ‘Rocks’ is never too obvious, but it is undeniably there. Rocks avoids social services because of her fear and distrust of them. At the risk of mildly spoiling the film, her worries are proven to have some truth to them. It is made clear that cuts in the social care sector can be detrimental for the children in this system. ‘Rocks’ is a proponent of diversity too, boasting a broad racially and ethnically diverse cast. The teenagers are Nigerian, Somali, Jamaican and Romani. This is significant, particularly for a British film.
The British Film Institute (BFI) reported this year that diversity is not improving quickly enough within the British film industry despite the fact that the BFI introduced diversity standards back in 2014. It is radical that ‘Rocks’ included many people of colour on screen and behind the camera. In that way, the film is important, but ‘Rocks’ is also undeniably excellent. It would certainly have a broad appeal to all kinds of viewers.
Brigid Molloy – Film and TV Correspondent
Angelina Pierce – Film and TV Writer