VOD film review: The Last Tree
James R | On 17, Aug 2020
Director: Shola Amoo
Cast: Tai Golding, Sam Adewunmi, Demmy Ladipo, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Nicholas Pinnock
Set in 2000 and released in 2019, Shola Amoo’s coming-of-age drama was hailed a timely study of identity at a time when the UK was tearing its own identity apart over questions of Brexit. Just over a year on, as the unlawful killing of George Floyd has sparked anti-racism protests on a global scale, The Last Tree feels even more timely as it raises questions of inclusion, assimilation and identification on a distinctly personal level.
The film follows Femi (Tai Golding, later Sam Adewunmi), a boy of Nigerian heritage who is raised by foster parents in Lincolnshire, before moving to London to live his birth mother. There, he finds himself struggling the increasingly pressure to decide what path his life will take, as he tries to reconcile his future with the culture, environment and expectations of those around him. His Nigerian mother, Yinka, is tough and firm in her demands of him to tread the straight and narrow path, but the estate where he lives makes him an easy target for local gangster Mace (Demmy Ladipo), who recruits him to be his fists and feet on the street, or act as lookout while others carry out crimes.
While elements of that gang life form a familiar screen narrative, The Last Tree delves into the costs that such perceptions and presumptions play; Femi, when we catch up with him as a teen, is brooding and macho on the outside, but vulnerable on the inside. He tells people he’s listening to Tupac when it’s really The Cure, and leans more towards sensitivity than swaggering confidence; some of the best scenes here see him interacting with possible love interest Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea).
That’s not just because of their chemistry, but also because they open up a debate about colourism, as Tope is bullied for her skin pigmentation being different to that of another black pupil. That kind of nuance is everywhere in Shola Amoo’s script, which finds fresh emotion in the pleading of teacher Mr Williams (the always-excellent Nicholas Pinnock) for Femi to engage with school.
The brief scenes between him and his foster mum, Mary (Denise Black), and his father are just as revealing despite their lack of dialogue, as Amoo directs his intimate tale with lyrical flourishes and impressionist burst of colours. There’s poetry to this highly personal coming-of-age chronicle, and the film’s authentic, sincere cry for belonging rings long after the end credits have rolled.