Rocks was a shot of life and energy in an otherwise listless year. The film takes us into the world of a group of young girls in Hackney – their loyalties and their rivalries, their music and their jokes. It swings between joy and sadness in the way life does, particularly teenage life. It moved me more than any other film this year.

Rocks centres on the titular character, played by Bukky Bakray, and her attempts to keep her and her younger brother’s lives together after their mother abandons them. Her brother, Emmanuel, is played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, and is among the all-time cutest screen children. At its core, it’s a coming-of-age story – one about a girl forced to grow up far too fast, as is so often the case for Black girls, for second-generation girls, for working-class girls, for girls with parents with poor mental health. The size of her problem is too much for Rocks to shoulder. She withdraws into herself. We, the audience, can see this as a vital move of self-protection, but the adults in her life misinterpret it as sullen. Bakray, who had never acted before, gives an impressively internal performance, only externalising in brief outbursts, in the way she holds her hands, in her looks.


Courtesy of: Altitude Film Distribution

The young cast were encouraged to improvise scenes, with camerawomen Hélène Louvart and Rachel Clark constantly ready to shoot. Director Sarah Gavron describes the process as “more akin to documentary in some ways”. The film’s realist style could place it in a strong lineage of British films about working-class life stretching back to the 1960s. But while the social forces shaping the characters’ lives are clear – a racist education system, the overstretched care system, lack of mental health support – it never feels like a social problem film. And it never feels like a weepie either (even though I was constantly blubbing). The camera and (especially) the score are unobtrusive, letting the girls’ performances and rapport speak for themselves.

Crucially, Rocks is also a ton of fun. The scenes of messing about in DT Food and Art reminded me that I’ve never laughed until my stomach hurt so much as when I was 14 years old at school with my friends. The girls’ jokes remind me how confident girls feel at that age and in each other’s company. It’s a time when friendship is all-important – when you see your friends every day and sometimes all day, before serious romantic relationships take precedence.

Figuring out who your real friends are is another crucial part of growing up, and some of the scenes with the highest stakes are those between Rocks and her perceptive and loyal best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali). At that age, differences can be felt keenly, and initially Rocks thinks Sumaya will never be able to understand her problems because of her “perfect life”. She tries on another girl, Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), who offers escapism and a little recklessness. But, by the end, Rocks has learned to allow herself to trust Sumaya, to cry and lean her head on her shoulder. You can’t stop your family from failing you, but you do get to decide which friends you keep around.


Courtesy of: Altitude Film Distribution

“Vibes. The first day. Instant vibes,” is how Bukray describes her first meeting with Ali, and onscreen those vibes are fully palpable. The most lasting impression left by the film is of the warm, playful chemistry between all the girls. Their easy chemistry is the result of a lengthy and collaborative filmmaking process. The Rocks team scouted 30 girls from schools in Hackney and Newham and they took part in nine months of workshops, with seven teens eventually selected to be in the film. Consciously trying to break down filmmaking hierarchies, the team encouraged and worked on suggestions from all members of the cast and crew. They shot the film in chronological order, and the iPhone footage in the film was actually shot by the girls themselves.

Furthermore, the crew was 75% female. Co-writer Claire Wilson says, “I don’t believe we’d have got the same performances from them if it was a bunch of male gaffers, grips, whatever. It would have changed the energy. Especially when you’re at that age, being around the opposite sex – regardless of who you’re attracted to – it changes how you present yourself. And they just didn’t have that.” Sarah Gavron (Suffragette) directed Rocks, but its story is largely that of co-writer Theresa Ikoko. She based Rocks on her older sister, to thank her for looking after her when she was young. She felt an affinity with Bukray; they are both British-Nigerian and from Hackney.

In many ways, Rocks’ freshness comes from its style and cast, but it also feels new because it’s not often that stories about girls like these are told. Hopefully, its success will pave the way for more stories reflecting young people’s real lives in the coming decade. This may well require changing the ways that films are made so that the experience is more welcoming and comfortable for people of colour and young women. With Rocks at least, this approach has resulted in a film that rings with truth, strength, and character.

So to recap, here’s our Top 20 so far…

=#20 – Shirley
=#20 – A Hidden Life
#19 – And Then We Danced
#18 – Dick Johnson is Dead
#17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
#16 – Wolfwalkers
#15 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
#14 – True History of the Kelly Gang
#13 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
#12 – Lovers Rock
#11 – Ema
#10 – Mangrove
#9 – ROCKS

Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2020 to count down our Top 10 films of 2020.