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New Release Review - THE LAST TREE

the last tree review
After growing up in quiet, rural Lincolnshire, teenager Femi struggles with unfamiliar surroundings and cultural differences when he moves in with his mother in London.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Shola Amoo

Starring: Sam Adewunmi, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Denise Black, Gbemisola Ikumelo

the last tree poster

Virtually every filmmaker wants to put their youth on screen in some way. Whether it's through the lens of nostalgia, as with a young Quentin Tarantino envisioning 60’s Los Angeles for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or Guy Maddin’s abstract chimera of childhood in My Winnipeg, or the direct autobiographical narrative style of Shola Amoo's sophomore feature The Last Tree.

This coming-of-age drama follows Femi (played by young Tai Golding and young adult Sam Adewunmi), a British boy of Nigerian heritage, who leaves an idyllic foster home in rural Lincolnshire to live with his single mother in inner-city London, growing up with an identity crisis and forever adapting to the milieu. The broadest point of reference is Moonlight - both films are lyrical treatises of black masculinity featuring difficult mother-son relationships and the ensnarement of crime, as Femi’s high school friends get wrapped up in the schemes of local drug-dealer Mace (an intimidating Demmy Ladipo).

the last tree review

Amoo is significantly better at visualising than vocalising his story. In the opening scene alone, the sequencing of images is stunning: we begin with close-ups of three youngsters, two white faces followed by one black, almost appearing like Sergio Leone cowboys ready to duel each other. We then cut back to see the boys joyfully play wrestling with one another while a James Horner-esque score underpins their days of a carefree, innocent youth, unaffected by the issues of race, masculinity and peer pressure that will eventually permeate Femi’s school years.

[ READ MORE: First Look Review - The Last Black Man in San Francisco ]

The bubble bursts when foster mother Mary (soap opera star Denise Black) announces that Femi’s birth mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) wants to take him back now that she’s established herself in the Big Smoke with a job and a flat in a high-rise. An enormous strength of this filmmaker is his ability to vividly draw every detail of these two environments that shape his main character.

the last tree review

His technique is a combination of canny, location-centric sound design and a skilled use of establishing shots that constantly offer us new information while creating a visual personality for each scene. One unnerving tracking shot follows Femi as he heads to Mace’s trap house; the low-lit, neon-soaked interiors are straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s playbook, coupled with the intensity that Ladipo brings to Mace as he tries to awaken Femi’s inner Michael X.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Scarborough ]

Why the sound and visual aesthetics are so salient here is because The Last Tree is so much about the demographic and sociological impacts of our environments. The village in Lincolnshire is a carefree land while, on the other hand, London is far noisier with sounds emanating from everywhere and nowhere. There’s a great moment where Femi is told to stay by the entrance of an underground lair while the gangsters go inside, and is told to shout if he hears anything. Even the slightest squeaks unsettle him - the danger is palpable.

The filmmaker is less successful at writing compelling dialogue, lacking the same subtlety or beauty of his images. Nonetheless, the distinctive London lingo is there and the banter is amazing - a moment involving mouthwash is priceless. The words on the page are enormously benefitted by the performers. Golding stays silent for the majority of the time but we know exactly what he's thinking and feeling because of Amoo’s visual and aural framing of the scene.

the last tree review

They say there are three versions of a film - the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. The Last Tree appears to have taken a major leap forward with each step. It’s a solid depiction of social conditioning and its relationship with environments, interlinking how the two shape every fabric of our being from how we act to how we react.

Noticing the contract between the lily-white village and black-majority London neighbourhood, the thought crossed my mind that a narrative of a black boy lured into a gang would be ammunition for racists at worst and "woke" commentators at best. But British cinema is distinctly lacking in black coming-of-age stories, making The Last Tree a breakthrough for new talent and fresh storytelling - I can’t think of other films that explore Yoruba culture to the same extent, and a late chapter featuring a family trip to Nigeria is unprecedented. It shouldn't feel like such a groundbreaking film yet here we are.

The Last Tree is in UK/ROI cinemas September 27th.


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