Rocks (2021)

The small-scale British drama Rocks appears to be standard coming-of-age docufiction at first glance. A naturalistic, mildly fictionalized portrait of kids’ lives alone in The Big City, the film invites skepticism of what could possibly set it apart from similar, contemporary works like Girlhood, Skate Kitchen, Nobody Knows, or The Florida Project. The answer is somewhat obvious: the kids themselves. Rocks mostly excels in its minor character details, platforming young performers who are authentically adorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking at every turn in their seemingly Real stories. As with a hagiographic documentary or a shamelessly formulaic mainstream comedy, the form of this kitchen-sink drama doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personalities it highlights. If anything, the movie better serves its characters & performers by stylistically staying out of their way.

The titular Rocks is a high school student in Hackney, London, and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. She’s a typical teenager at the start of the film, at least judging by her young Londoner peers. She’s mostly interested in dance, hip-hop, and Instagram make-up tutorials, and she pretends to be more annoyed with her absurdly adorable kid brother than she actually is. Her typical-teen life is disrupted early in the film when her mother abandons the kids in their cramped apartment with only a small stack of cash to keep them afloat until she returns (if she returns at all). Rocks quickly goes from bartering for candy in the schoolyard to being the head of her small family, lugging her brother and his pet frog all over the city in a daily struggle to survive life without income or a safety net. It’s unclear at first whether she’s just too proud to ask her circle of friends for help or if she’s fearful of what might happen if word gets out that she & her brother are going it alone. The movie is fascinated by where she belongs within Hackney as a larger community, though, and it feels most vibrant & alive when she’s figuring that question out among kids her own age.

If there’s anything especially striking about director Sarah Gavron’s filmmaking here, it’s in her attention to the artifice of social media while chasing down the grimmer details of Real Life. The movie is incredibly smart about allowing the kids’ preferred mode of communication—Instagram—to propel its visual language & drama. It shifts to a vertical smartphone aspect ratio so frequently that I have to wonder why the kids weren’t given their own “Cinematography By” credits. They check in with & lash out at each other through Instagram posts, and use the app’s Stories function as an edited-in-the-moment travelogue in the transitions between locales. The film is not as confrontationally in-your-face about that stylistic choice as genre films like Sickhouse, Assassination Nation, or Ingrid Goes West, but it is just as honest about how much of its teen subjects’ daily lives are recorded, filtered, and preserved through that very specific lens.

Speaking personally, my ideal version of this film might be one pieced together entirely through staged Instagram posts, like the tear-jerker drama equivalent of a found footage horror film. It would be dismissed as a gimmicky, attention-grabbing choice by most audiences, but to me it feels as authentic to the Kids Today™ as the cinema verité style was to the docufiction subjects of the 1960s & 70s. As is, these kids still feel authentically Real in every beat of the story, even when it’s at its most melodramatic. The movie is obviously more interested in highlighting those performers (who were credited for contributing to writing the dialogue) than it is in flaunting its own heightened sense of style or drama. That’s certainly a worthwhile goal, and the payoffs suggest it was the right way to go with this material (even if it somewhat flattens what distinguishes the film from similar works).

-Brandon Ledet