The Last Tree opens in bucolic Lincolnshire, an idyllic place for a young boy to grow up in because full of freedom: free to roam around the countryside, free to get dirty in the mud or contemplate the open sky, free to play with his friends all day long and come home whenever he wants.
This is, at least, the life of Femi – young actor Tai Golding’s very first role. The British Nigerian child lives with his foster mother Mary, Denise Black (“Queer as Folk”, “Last Orders”): his biological mother Yinka, Gbemisola Ikumelo (“Brain in Gear”, “Famalam”), barely visits him while his father, who stayed in Nigeria, is even more of a stranger to him.
But Femi is happy where he is and dreads an eventual comeback from his mother. Despite making Mary promise him that they’ll always be together, Yinka’s comeback is inevitable and Femi is forced to leave the childhood he knows behind and follow his biological mother to London where life is much stricter and friends harder to come by.
By its very name the film evokes the idea of uprooting: in the first minutes, Femi is indeed forced to leave his beloved countryside for a cramped apartment in London. Yet the uprooting goes further than that: in Lincolnshire, only white people surrounded him while his broken relationships with his parents distanced him from his Nigerian heritage – a country his biological mother promises she’ll show him.
By following his mother to London, he is in a way getting closer to his roots. Regardless, just like the tree stump near their apartment, it is what he will grow into that matters most.
As a teenager, now played by Sam Adewunmi (“The Hatton Garden Job”, “Stan Lee’s Lucky Man”), Femi finds friendship in two classmates yet never truly fits in with them and their bullying ways. He becomes even more torn when his friend’s target is Tope, Ruthxjiah Bellenea, a girl he is secretly crushing on.
The real test comes when he gets the attention of Mace, Demmy Ladipo (“Enterprice”, “Degree”), a gang leader whose activities go much further than taunting girls at school. With this one man on one shoulder and his benevolent teacher Mr. Williams, Nicholas Pinnock (“Fortitude”, “Marcella”) on the other, Femi needs to decide which kind of man he wants to become.
As both writer and director, Shola Amoo (“Touch”, “A Moving Image”) infuses the narrative with his own life story – The Last Tree is semi-autobiographical – and never lets the film fall into black-and-white thinking. Each character is portrayed with nuance, and Femi’s indecisions and place in all this are relatable and touching.
The biggest quality of the film is its ability to put us directly into Femi’s headspace by the use of sound and cinematography: several scenes throughout the film immerses us entirely into Femi’s own little bubble, the ambient sound quieting down to a low murmur.
These contemplative scenes are both inventive and sensitive, and if they work so well it is also thanks to Tai Golding’s and Sam Adewunmi’s acting. Both actors are convincing as different versions of the same character, and both add a lot of depth to Femi, overcoming the hindrance of a closed-off character to give him emotions beyond his impassive face.
When needed, Segun Akinola’s wonderful score (“Doctor Who”, “Dear Mr Shakespeare: Shakespeare Lives”) also complement the scenes and adds to the film’s ethereal atmosphere.
The Last Tree is divided into three parts, the first and last acting as a prologue and epilogue. The whole makes us peer into a delicate and complicated journey where Femi decides what his branches will be as he reconnects with his roots, all beautifully crafted by Amoo and the rest of his crew.