Sundance London 2019: The Last Tree Review
Shola Amoo’s low-budget multimedia debut, A Moving Image, saw the British writer-director push back against the gentrification of inner city areas like Brixton, a rare point of discussion on screens of any size in the UK. Amoo has now followed this up with a coming-of-age story told from a perspective also rarely given the time of day. The Last Tree centres itself on the story of a young Nigerian-British boy through three key stages of his development from child to man. Given its structure, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight would be the obvious reference point, but there is little else about Amoo’s sophomore effort that compares.
In fact, this is much more of a personal film for Amoo, who has commented the film is a semi-autobiographical account of his own childhood experiences. Like the character he creates here, Amoo was raised for a number of years by racially different parents, before moving back to live with his Nigerian born mother. The Last Tree sees him return to his formative years in an attempt to explore the ideas of culture, identity and the African diaspora experience.
When we first meet young Femi (played by Tai Golding as a kid and Sam Adewunmi as teenager) he is living in rural Lincolnshire being raised by caring white foster parent, Mary (Denise Black). He is the only black child in his small group of friends and school class. His real Nigerian mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) rarely visits, but even though Mary tells him he will be able to live with her for good, Yinka could arrive at any time to take him away. When she does arrive, Femi not only has to adapt to the living with his mother, but also the culture shock that comes with moving to a council estate in inner-city London, adjusting to a more hectic school environment and stricter parental rules imposed by Yinka.
In his new home Femi is expected to do daily chores and is beaten if he doesn’t do as asked. The food at home has changed too, from traditional English fare to Nigerian cooking. At school he quickly finds trouble when defending himself against other boys laughing at his appearance and full Nigerian name (Olufemi). As he grows older local gangster Mace (Demmy Ladipo) tries to recruit him, an option Femi increasingly sees as his only option. Internally he is raging with confusion, while his mother and teacher are desperate for him to focus on his upcoming exams.
Femi’s story is one shared by countless other young men of colour in the UK. The expectations placed upon him by his heritage, and by those in his immediate environment, force him to build a wall to protect his own identity being taken from him. Amoo defines two clear sides to who Femi wants to be and could be, the internalised struggle starting to emerge as confusion and anger as he tries to unearth his own answers. But being young and black growing up in a poor London borough rarely affords the time and space needed to discover what those may be, before being sidelined into another way of life.
Adewunmi takes most of the screen time and proves to be extremely well cast by Amoo. The young actor has a handful of roles to his name so far but has no problem providing a captivating presence as the lead. He is tasked with externalising the internal battle going on in Femi’s mind and Adewunmi is able to express his emotional journey with sensitive detail. In lesser hands, Ikumelo's role as his mother may have felt restrictive and one-note, but there is an empathy you share with her own story as a single mother and migrant now living hundreds of miles from home trying to raise a troubled son in what she believes to be the right way.
There are some issues with The Last Tree that do stand out, such is the elusiveness of the style employed by Amoo. At times the narrative seems to meander and lose its way, unsure of a way to clearly punch home the point it is trying to make. The opening sequence is a clear example, where the young Femi is seen playing around with his friends in the countryside, led by Segun Akinola's slightly overbearing score. There are other moments where Amoo’s film could’ve benefited from a little more precision, but none are enough to seriously detract from his vision.
Amoo closes out his film in Lagos, Nigeria, allowing space for Femi to further embellish is inner-self and gain an understanding of his place in the world. You would imagine it’s a moment similar to one experienced by the director, and it allows him the opportunity to celebrate his roots and bridge a connection to what he could only once imagine. Amoo continues to give voice to viewpoints British cinema desperately needs more of to consider itself a truly diverse industry, and films like The Last Tree will hopefully go a long way to breaking down those longstanding barriers.
The Last Tree will play at Sundance London this weekend - visit the website to see if there are any tickets still available.
Shola Amoo's film will also be opening in UK cinemas on September 20.