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‘The Last Tree’ Review: Struggles of a New Life


“The Last Tree,” the visually arresting second feature from Shola Amoo, offers a coming-of-age narrative guided by fluid definitions of family, strains of cultural tension and the quest for personal freedom.

The film, available through virtual cinemas, is a semi-autobiographical story told in three acts. It opens in a rural area of the English county of Lincolnshire, with a young Femi (Tai Golding) playing with his friends at the golden hour: They run through the hills, wrestle in the mud and yell triumphantly. But this idyllic moment, marked by yellow, green and brown hues, has an expiration date. Femi’s birth mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), has come to collect her son and build a life with him in London. Until then, Femi, the only black child in his area, had been raised by his white foster mother Mary (Denise Black). After an emotional and reluctant farewell, Femi leaves with Yinka for London.

London — where a majority of the film takes place — is gray and subdued. Femi struggles to adjust to his new life at school, where students mock him for being Nigerian, and at home, where he is lonely and doesn’t get along with his mother. The film moves ahead five years and Femi, now 16 and played by Sam Adewunmi, is trying to figure out his relationship with himself and the world. Both his mother (with whom his relationship is tempered but distant) and a teacher who has taken interest in him encourage him to focus on school, but there is an alternative lifestyle modeled, in this case, by Mace (Demmy Ladipo), a small-time hustler. Perhaps it is the familiarity of these themes, but the choice between the two fates doesn’t feel as complicated as the film wants it to be. The third part of the film takes Femi and his mother to Lagos where their relationship takes an unlikely turn.

“The Last Tree” — which has been compared to “Moonlight” because of its three-act structure, distinct visual language and focus on boyhood — ambitiously tackles complicated themes in a short period of time, but the most interesting questions raised are about freedom and family. As immigrants living in London, Yinka and Femi are haunted by the effects of how, where and with whom they can be free.

Freedom drove Yinka to come to Britain and to desperately fight for a better life, but chasing it also alienates her from her son. And freedom — especially to express himself — impacts how Femi moves, speaks and relates to those around him. Even Amoo’s aesthetic choices are marked by capturing that constrained mobility.

However, as a result of this ambition, the film feels at times like it is trying to take on too much — plotlines are rushed, relationships feel unearned or not explained. Still, I can’t help but be impressed by Amoo’s attempts to direct a familiar narrative with such a complicated set of questions.

The Last Tree
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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