‘Young people have an amazing sense of humour, because the world is ridiculous’: How Rocks is revolutionising British cinema

Beth Webb
·6-min read
'Rocks' breaks new ground with its radical rethinking of how teenagers are depicted (Altitude Releasing)
'Rocks' breaks new ground with its radical rethinking of how teenagers are depicted (Altitude Releasing)

It’s worth sticking around for the end credits of Rocks, a disarming, dazzling study of friendship amid a group of east-London-born teenage girls. Not for any Marvel-style bonus footage, but for the rare clarification that pops up after the names of the young, mostly non-professional actors have shimmied across the screen: “The cast and many other young Londoners collaborated with the writers and filmmakers to create the characters and world of this film.”

This shared approach to storytelling isn’t entirely new, especially in British cinema. Major names such as Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold have built their reputations upon a respectful and thorough approach to working with their young ensemble casts for films like This Is England, Fish Tank and Cannes Jury Prize-winner American Honey. With Rocks, however, the boundaries between filmmakers and cast have been obliterated, opening up a new channel of creativity that spills onto the screen in a fluid celebration of multiculturalism and sisterhood.

“It’s weird how a film gets attributed to a director,” says Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, Brick Lane), who assumed that very role for Rocks. “What we’re trying to communicate is that this is a film by all of us. We live in a world where people don’t get platforms for the wrong reasons and we’re hoping that this film changes that and gives ownership where it’s due.”

‘Rocks’ tells the story of teenage girls growing up in east LondonFable Pictures
‘Rocks’ tells the story of teenage girls growing up in east LondonFable Pictures

The film is pinned to the story of British-Nigerian teenager Rocks (birth name Shola, played by Bukky Bukray), whose mother leaves her to care for her younger brother. It’s shaped in part by Hackney-born playwright and screenwriter Theresa Ikoko, who wanted to write something for her sister. “She made sure that I had a childhood,” she says. “I think that a lot of black and brown girls, either by circumstance or society, have to sacrifice their softness and their childhood or adolescence for the greater good of the community or family.”

The finished film, however, is based on myriad stories from the filmmakers, cast and local schoolgirls who were consulted and observed for the film over a nine-month research period. “We posted these big sheets of paper across the walls with character exercises on them,” Ikoko explains when describing her initial work with the girls.

“We asked them when their character cried for the last time, and to tell us about a scar on their character’s body. They’re all really active members of their communities and families, and are amazing storytellers, so they brought a lot of energy and magic to the film.”

Ikoko stresses, however, that the girls’ input wasn’t channelled into making Rocks an “authentic” film about teenage girls living in London today. “I hate that word,” she says. “I dislike this idea of black people being used as a stamp. These are clever and precious thinkers, and represent more than just what the cool kids say. Our process was more about constantly sharing and acknowledging each other.”

It’s this impassioned commitment and community mentality that make Rocks such a milestone in British cinema, taking the foundations laid by its peers and guiding this collaborative vein of filmmaking into even more open terrain, where a group of loving, multi-ethnic girls can exist together onscreen untethered to any overwhelming trauma or romantic entanglements.

Films that nurture the young voices that they choose to spotlight have a tendency to endure, even when they stray from realism. As it approaches its 10th anniversary, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block owes its cult status not just to its ambitious concept (a band of aliens wreak havoc on a south London estate) but to its ensemble of affable and robust teenage characters. Before writing his script, London-born Cornish spoke with hundreds of young people across the city and filled big folders with verbatim transcripts from their workshops. The conversations would begin with him outlining the premise of the film.

The young cast helped with the dialogue in 2011’s ‘Attack the Block’Optimum Releasing
The young cast helped with the dialogue in 2011’s ‘Attack the Block’Optimum Releasing

“I think as soon as I pulled out a picture of a kid on a moped being chased by an alien, they realised that this is going to be a different kind of conversation,” he tells me. “We'd say, ‘What would you do if this meteor crashed in your neighbourhood? What would you think if this creature jumped out?’ We would never get it on the nose if we asked them directly about what they thought about certain issues. It was always through the lens of science fiction; I think it gets much more truthful stuff.”

Once the cast of Attack the Block were locked in, a series of sessions were instigated in which they could tweak their characters’ dialogue as they saw fit, though Cornish also commends his collaborators for helping to devise the the chaos’s comedic comments: “Young people have an amazing sense of humour, because the world is ridiculous, and young people are open to acknowledging that faster than older people are.”

Filmmaker Eva Riley’s debut film Perfect 10 focuses on two estranged siblings in Brighton. She wrote the final version of her script with her first-time actors Frankie Box and Alfie Deegan in mind, and would use spontaneous moments and improvised dialogue from the pair to carry some of the heavier scenes when filming. She believes that the naturalism that came from their collaboration may help to change the narrative around working-class characters for global audiences.

Newcomer Frankie Box plays an aspiring gymnast in Eva Riley's ‘Perfect 10’606 Distribution
Newcomer Frankie Box plays an aspiring gymnast in Eva Riley's ‘Perfect 10’606 Distribution

“Sometimes films about working-class kids in the UK show them to be criminals, or baddies,” she says. “They’re one-dimensional. But at the heart of it, these are two warm, complicated young people played by such lovely actors. I want someone in another country to watch them and engage with them, even if they don’t understand what ‘mug’ means.”

The call for improved representation both onscreen and behind the camera has never been greater. Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a potentially game-changing new set of guidelines that demand diversity in order for a film to qualify for a Best Picture nomination. As a modern example of representation throughout its entire creative process, Rocks is revolutionary. For Ikoko, though, her hopes for what the film can achieve are more personally aligned.

“I've always been a huge Marvel fan, and I remember seeing Black Panther and crying at the back of the cinema in Angel,” she remembers. “Because I saw myself; I saw languages that felt like they belonged to me, materials and prints, and a love for a community that felt resonant to me.

“I cried,” she continues, “because this world that I loved with such dedication finally loved me back. I hope that people who might not feel loved back watch Rocks and feel that they too are worthy of being loved.”

‘Rocks’ is out now in cinemas

‘Perfect 10’ is currently available to stream On Demand from Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player

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