There are familiar aspects to The Last Tree, the story of a young black man who grows up with a foster parent in Lincolnshire and later moves to London with his Nigerian-born mother. And then there is the unfamiliar. It’s the later that makes this film – the second by director Shola Amoo – stand out.
Femi (played by newcomer Tai Golding in the early parts and later by Sam Adewumni) grows up under the care of a foster parent in rural Lincolnshire. His life is a happy one – wrestling with friends among the crop fields and enjoying a loving relationship with Mary (Denise Black), the foster parent who he calls ‘nan’. Everything changes when Femi’s mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) comes back to claim him, taking him to live in an apartment block in a rough part of south London where he struggles to make friends, fit in and understand who he really is.
This is a film of three segments and Amoo has chosen some prominent and experimental visual techniques with which to distinguish each part. Femi’s early life in Lincolnshire is defined by soporific, golden-lit sequences, heightened by the slow-motion movement of young limbs. Warm light over rustling fields is a recurring motif, conjuring an image of safety and peace. This is not the story we’re normally told – here, a young black boy has no trouble integrating within a wholly white community. It’s the first sign that Amoo might be doing things a little differently.
Everything, from Femi’s physical surroundings to the style of filming, shifts with the move to London. If the effect is jarring, it serves to mirror just how extreme the transition is for Femi. As time shifts we meet a new person – a street-wise 16-year-old, joking with mates and stealing sweets from the off-licence. Actor Sam Adewumni is physically an unrealistic school-boy, but his combination of surly silence at home and slang-ridden banter with his mates hits the mark. In many ways Femi’s reality is now a harsh one and the audience feels powerless as he is eventually driven into the hands of a local gang, while his relationship with his mother deteriorates.
These parts of the story are certainly heartbreaking, but there are always signs that Femi’s tough exterior does not wholly represent what lies within and there’s underlying hope in these hints. In one scene we hear Femi listening to The Cure only to pretend it’s a Tupac track when questioned by his friends. Amoo has a knack for addressing big questions of culture and identity in subtle moments such as these. He also has a habit of tackling racial issues in a more nuanced way than the basic white-vs-black story audiences may be familiar with. When Femi joins his new school he is teased for his Nigerian name by another black boy (called Dean) and one of Femi’s black friends harasses a female classmate because her skin is particularly dark.
The Last Tree isn’t perfect. The use of flashing lights, cross-fading and other visual and auditory techniques at moments of transition in Femi’s life feel too forced a representation of his inner turmoil. This is mirrored by the fact that some transitions in Femi’s character come too cleanly – particularly in his transformative relationship with a well-meaning teacher.
Nevertheless, The Last Tree is powerful for the way it tells a familiar story with a fresh perspective and for its deft exploration of complex, layered characters. The protagonists, particularly Femi and his mother, rarely stray into cliché – each has the power to love but also to wound – and a violent mother is much more than just a violent mother. Viewed as a whole, Amoo has brought together themes of race, culture and identity with a subtle but memorable touch.
THE LAST TREE is released in UK cinemas across UK & Ireland on 27th September 2019
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