I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
For his second feature, Nigerian-British filmmaker Shola Amoo tells a semiautobiographical tale about finding one’s place in the world when nowhere quite feels like home. The Last Tree is about the insidious perfidy of racism even when hatred seems distant, and about immigration and assimilation from unexpected angles. It is filled with startling specificity and intense intimacy the likes of which can come only from a storyteller’s deep personal connection to the story he is telling. And it is powerfully universal in its compassionate depiction of a child’s narrow perspective on the world giving way to adolescent rage as that protective cocoon is shattered, and then the dawning of an appreciation for the complexities of everything.
We meet Femi at about eight years old (played by charming newcomer Tai Golding), enjoying an idyllic childhood in rural Lincolnshire, England, in the 1990s: long days of frolicking in golden fields in dappled sunlight with his chummy gang of little boys… all the rest of whom are white. We may of course presume that racism exists here in the conservative English countryside, but Femi has no awareness of it, probably at least partly due to the fierce protectiveness of his white foster mother, Mary (Denise Black). It’s a depiction of being Black in the UK that I cannot recall seeing onscreen before, so free of care and so full of joy. The dreaminess with which Amoo and cinematographer Stil Williams (Gone Too Far!) cast young Femi’s existence feels as much like a wish for a kinder world for kids like Femi as much as simply the pleasant haze of a happy, oblivious childhood.
But then Femi’s biological mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), announces that she’s ready to take Femi back, having finally settled herself in London. She may have arrived from Nigeria either when pregnant with Femi or while he was still a very small child, because the boy seems to have no memories of London (and later, we see, none of Nigeria either) and not much affection for Yinka. Their reunion is strained and tense, a kind of culture shock for him: Femi is lost in working-class Black South London, and with a mother whose parenting style is very different from what he’s used to.
The astonishing beauty of The Last Tree comes in how our perceptions of Femi’s life in London shift in the film’s second section, following 16-ish Femi (now played by a fierce Sam Adewunmi) as he struggles in school and as he contemplates what comes next, what sort of adult life he will have. Amoo has kept a tight focus on Femi throughout, but it’s here when we start to recognize that, as our view on his life and those around him change and grow with his own. The small-time gangster (Demmy Ladipo) Femi has fallen in with begins not to look so strong and powerful; his mother, overworked and lonely, suddenly seems more sympathetic; the teacher (Nicholas Pinnock: The Keeping Room, Captain America: The First Avenger) who’s always on his case starts to make sense. That teenage rage that many of us will recognize from our own early years, that sulky self-pity, begins to fall away, and Femi — like many young people — has the epiphany that his life is, in significant measure, in his own hands, the path before him one that he can choose for himself, if he can find the courage to be true to himself.
With our eyes, we glimpse the larger societal problems that loom for Femi: how poverty destroys families; how children who feel hopeless and directionless find acceptance in gangs; how racism smashes self-esteem and can turn marginalized people against themselves. But The Last Tree is not anything like what has become a sad stereotype of stories about Black Britain, too often salaciously centered on crime and outlawry detached from larger context. There is a lovely grounding here in Femi’s burgeoning understanding of how life is merely people in difficult situations trying to do their best, even when that might not be what is expected of you. The film’s title is ambiguous and open to numerous interpretations, but the one I like most is the ironic hint of family lineages cut off — damaged family trees, that is, as Femi discovers his own is in the movie’s final section, as he visits Lagos with his mother — but perhaps now finding new earth in which to thrive.
The Last Tree will have a virtual release in the US from June 26th, supporting local arthouses during the coronavirus lockdown. See the film’s official site to purchase a digital ticket to stream the movie online. It will also be available to stream on Vimeo in the US and other regions.
Watch a Q&A recorded live on Thursday, June 25th with writer-director Shola Amoo and stars Samuel Adewunmi and Ruthxjiah Bellenea on the Picturehouse YouTube channel.