Shola Amoo’s second feature is an accomplished and absorbing film, following the teenage Femi as he struggles to create his own identity and sense of place from disparate memories, experiences and expectations.
Little confusions, which for teenagers can still loom large, are woven into far more serious choices. There’s a sweet scene when Femi, walking along listening to The Cure, pulls off his headphones and tells his friend it was Tupac. It’s funny, but it’s also an example of how even the most seemingly confident teenager is still desperate to fit in, unable to share who they really are even with friends.
Amoo understands the many ways a teenager needs to belong: whether Femi is fibbing about his musical tastes, or working out who he is as a black teenage boy in busy London, whose childhood memories are of a slow-moving, predominantly white world.
Who we are, and how we can carve out our own space, are common questions growing up, but they’re given added layers in Femi’s story, which starts with him as a child pulled out of his carefree existence in semi-rural Lincolnshire then jumps to his last year at a big inner-London senior school.
When we first meet the younger Femi (Tai Golding) he’s a tween living with his white foster carer Mary (Denise Black). These scenes are bathed in a nostalgic golden glow; school feels safe and friendly, and in the evenings he plays in the fields in the fading sunlight with his friends, who are also white. Mary loves him, but despite what she tells him, she doesn’t have the power to make this house, filled with photos and ornaments, a permanent home for him.
His move to London, when his mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) unexpectedly returns to collect him, is an emotional and physical shock to his senses. It’s a jarring transition. They arrive at the estate at night; there’s constant and inescapable noise from nearby traffic, and pee in the lift. His room is newly-furnished but bare, and even when he’s older he never does much more than stick a few magazine posters on the wall, as if he’s not sure he’s staying.
This is a semi-autobiographical story from writer-director Amoo, but though it’s personal it’s always accessible. Sometimes the tricks he uses to highlight Femi’s internal battles and his retreat into himself – seeing the world through his eyes, muffled sounds that highlight his isolation – temporarily distract from the flow of the story, but we’re always quickly back on track.
The Last Tree is also about motherhood, and the mistakes we make trying to do the right thing; Amoo is skilful in the way our sympathy for Yinka grows during the course of the film, and part of Femi’s homecoming as an adult is understanding the two women who have helped form him, mistakes and all.
And Yinka does make mistakes, imposing an idea of family life entirely at odds with how it was with Mary. She demands respect simply for being a parent without ever having earned it, something the young Femi picks up on instantly. “I did not raise you to be rude” she says sharply. “You didn’t raise me” he replies. Her mothering combines extreme discipline with attempts to keep him safe (he’s not allowed out while she’s at work), but it backfires with a child who barely knows her, or his own Nigerian-British background.
At the start of the film it’s Mary whose character seems bathed in a golden glow. Later on it’s clear that her unfounded reassurance that he could stay with her was a bigger betrayal than she’d realised, though there’s no trite reversal of fortune – the two women are never in competition as mothers.
Most of the film focuses on Femi as an older teen; we see his introduction to his new school but then there’s a jump to his final year. By now, older Femi (Sam Adewunmi) is shoplifting with his mates for fun, and standing by when one of them, who is also black, mocks a classmate because her skin is darker than theirs. His exams are looming, while his conflicts over fitting in cover a vast spectrum (at that age doesn’t every worry seem equally important?). Sometimes his choices are dangerous, sometimes simply funny.
Drug dealers and local thugs are more interesting and exciting than studying for his exams, and Femi becomes entangled in their world. Those splits in the road that often happen when we are vulnerable and insecure – in this case, Femi moving from jokey shoplifting, to a deeper dive into a sort of criminal family – are instantly recognisable.
Femi’s understandable anger reverberates with unfocused pain and confusion. His teacher Mr Williams (Nicholas Pinnock), who has navigated a similar path, is the only adult with a chance of reaching Femi when he is at his most vulnerable, before that anger becomes pure alienation.
Sam Adewunmi is a captivating and charismatic lead. His maturity as an actor belies his youth: it’s not just that he reminds us that Femi is, after all, still a kid; Adewumni ensures that in the older teen we can still clearly see the young Femi too.
(Adewunmi is tall and broad, and looks older than 17; many boys physically already look like men while inside they’re still lost, trying to make that leap from childhood. For me it simply highlighted another layer of expectation that Femi has to navigate.)
We don’t find out about Femi’s early life: how or why he was placed with Mary, or whether he had other connections with Lincolnshire. The sunny nostalgic glow of those childhood days make them feel like the age-old summers we claim to remember years later. Afterwards I wondered if Amoo is reminding us how much we curate our own early childhood memories in response to our later experiences.
The end of the film sees Femi exploring his heritage with his mother. The Last Tree ends with humour and acceptance – and an understanding of how Femi himself can incorporate his history into the man he wants to be.
The Last Tree is released in UK cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 27th September 2019.
Watch the trailer for The Last Tree below: