From Nigeria to Lincolnshire then London and back again, writer/ director Shola Amoo’s semi-autobiographical The Last Tree tells the tale of a young boy Femi (Tai Golding). After being raised by foster mother Mary (Denise Black) in rural Lincolnshire, Femi is suddenly, reluctantly reunited with birth mum Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and forced to move with her to grubby, brutalist London. As well as having to adapt to the urban municipal, Femi finds himself beaten and being raised under new strict rules then enrolled in a City Academy and forced to defend himself against bullies.
Shola Amoo’s enchanting second feature examines how changing environments and fractured families have a significant effect on young minds and can substantially re-shape identities. The script follows Femi through childhood into adolescence, where he is played by Sam Adewunmi. As a teenager, Femi is livid with religious mum Yinka, and uses her as target for his rage stemming from the foster family fissure and cultural disconnection. Femi feels lost in London and living with a broken heart due to losing his life in Lincolnshire as well as being cut off from/ indifferent to his Nigerian heritage and estranged biological father.
Considering these conflicts, The Last Tree dreamily saunters through Femi’s life, languorously observing skirmishes. This is a fascinating manner to capture fractures yet slightly dilutes the realism. The fish-out-of-water template is adhered to, but not rigidly, and woven with coming of age clichés. It’s plot and concept combines cultural displacement with character defects linked to lost, forgotten families, but it never really feels there is too much at stake if Femi were to follow a one path or another. Also, the characters aren’t crafted well enough to continuously engage, despite being brilliantly brought to life by the cast. Light comedy takes the edge off in a good way with hilarious dialogue deriving from exchanges between Femi and school friends, while a darker, gang/ crime side-line arises involving local rascal Mace (Demmy Ladipo).
Amoo’s palettes, hues and wistful moods infused via glorious sweeping slow-mo shots over landscapes, meld well with Segun Akinola’s hypnotic score and Stil Williams’ stunning cinematography, which makes The Last Tree (to some degree) magical. The story almost derails into cliched terrain, but a type toppling quasi-love sub-plot involving student Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea) counteracts the chestnuts. Its plot pootles leisurely but doesn’t dawdle, stagnate nor captivate.
Instead of mining and amplifying battles for plot or into dynamic drama with more apt visuals, The Last Tree doesn’t feel heightened enough to totally enthrall. There is a strong character arc, as Femi adapts via explosive, violent breakdowns, fired by his estranged father/ foster mother fury, but this is not seeded enough at an earlier stage to be consistently dynamic. Yet Amoo’s film remains a dreamy, featherweight, fleeting experience that seems by-the-numbers but looks amazing and, most importantly, has a great big beating heart.
The Last Tree is released in UK cinemas on 20th September.