By Benjamin Akpan
One of the most poignant films to screen at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Rocks is a powerful coming-of-age tale exploring friendship, femininity, and youthfulness. Nevertheless, Rocks is nothing without the women who made it. When director Sarah Gavron, and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson finally happened upon the concept that would eventually become Rocks, the seed had been planted for something unconventional.
Conceived by Ikoko, she states that she wanted to make a film about the power of women: “[Women] are probably the most resilient species in the world, but also there’s an expectation of strength which sometimes means we don’t ask for help and help is also not offered.” But she didn’t plan to write a story drenched in misery. “There is a boundless, limitless joy and love and possibility [in women] that I wanted to explore,” Ikoko mentions, having grown around five sisters herself.
Played by Nigerian-British actress Bukky Bakray, Rocks is a 16-year-old girl whose life is radically altered when her mother suddenly runs away, leaving Rocks to cater for her seven-year-old brother. At the core of Rocks is the resilience of women, and the power that comes from female friendships. Wilson mentions that – more than anything – they wanted a story that was raw and resonant, avoiding the common coming-of-age trope that romanticizes the issues that teenage girls go through: “Female friendship is such a powerful thing, and we wanted to show that there’s stuff going on in the lives of teenagers that are not as flowery.” Even the decision to focus on friendship stemmed from the need to attain authenticity. In an initial version of the script, there was a larger focus on boys and romantic relationships, but Ikoko mentions that what stood out when working with the cast “was their friendship; there was no need to shoehorn in any other themes that weren’t that didn’t feel authentic.”
Of course, at the core of the film are the girls on the screen. Rocks came about as a collaborative effort, starting with an extensive workshop process with many young people around East London, where some of the girls that would eventually feature in the film were collected; Bakray herself included. Later on, an open audition was held, and out of 1,300 girls, Kosar Ali, the energetic Somali-British was cast to play Sumaya, Rocks’ sincere, yet unsparing best friend. Gavron mentions that from the onset, Bakray displayed a commitment to go the extra mile in portraying the character, and Ali brought a tough, complex energy, creating an alchemy that effortlessly mirrored the deeply affecting relationship between Sumaya and Rocks. Yet, Bakray refutes this, highlighting how hard playing the character was: “I needed to be soft and vulnerable to play her, despite the fact that I’ve been taught to be the opposite. But it got easier when I started to see Rocks in myself.” Ali, on the other hand, could relate to Sumaya right off the bat, seeing a great deal of similarities between her personality and the character’s. Still, she says, “I never thought I’d be able to portray those emotions on screen.”
Ultimately, Rocks is powerful, not only because of its actors, writers, and director, but because of its message and relatability. Bakray mention: “I want all girls to be able to see this and feel themselves in the story.” But characters like these would not exist without people like Gavron bringing them to life, and Wilson echoes the need for more stories like these to be told in the first place. Rocks is a moving story that reminds us of “the perseverance of hope and joy that shine even in the darkest of moments,” as Ikoko puts it. It is a brutal, yet empathetic look into womanhood in the face of instabilities. These are powerful characters on screen, and it is just as assuring to know that the women behind it are just as buoyant.
Read our full review of Rocks here.
*Editor’s Note: Rocks premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of TIFF Next Wave and Platform Programme.