'The Last Tree': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An elliptical look at hard changes in a young man's life.

Shola Amoo's second feature follows the son of a Nigerian immigrant who must return to her after an idyllic life with a foster mother.

Checking in at a few pivotal moments in the life of a British-Nigerian boy, Shola Amoo's The Last Tree shows that despite periods of nurturing, his growth into a happy adulthood is far from assured. The film's elliptical nature and its themes may remind some viewers of Moonlight, but Tree's time-leaps feel more arbitrary, withholding some of the pleasures of the coming-of-age genre without putting other satisfactions in their place. Strong performances and sensitive direction should be rewarded with festival-circuit love, but Stateside art house potential is limited.

We meet Femi (Tai Golding) in an idyll that proves sadly temporary: The only black boy in a cluster of close preteen friends, he plays happily in the sun-dappled countryside as a slightly overdramatic score by Segun Akinola swells. Femi is the foster child of Mary (Denise Black), a white woman who cherishes him. When Mary tells him that his birth mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) is coming for a visit, he's unsettled until she promises that Yinka isn't going to take him back. But she is.

After a sweet but sad goodbye party, Femi is transported to London squalor ("Careful — there's pee there") by a woman who seems to think stern punishments will make up for the time she wasn't able (for reasons we never learn) to mother her child. The chores she assigns Femi are strenuous; the punishments when he slags them off are harsh. After they've spent just a short period together, a quick exchange lays out the rules of resentment:

"I didn't raise you to be rude."

"You didn't raise me."

Soon, in a stylish transition, we jump a half-decade into the future. The innocent kid we met is replaced with an older Femi (Sam Adewunmi) who shoplifts with the kids who once taunted him. This Femi knows enough to be wary of neighborhood thug Mace (Demmy Lapido), but not how to weasel away from his attentions: Mace takes a shine to the now-stoic youth, and starts grooming him for a place in what looks to be a drug-dealing operation.

Amoo's screenplay doesn't neglect the efforts of Femi's mother and a teacher (played sympathetically by Nicholas Pinnock) to scare or coax the kid back onto a more promising path. But the filmmaking suggests that his best hope lies elsewhere: He's drawn to a studious girl at school with dyed-blue braids (Ruthxjiah Bellenea's Tope), but not yet so strongly that he'll keep his buddies from harassing her. (Later, when he finally stands up for Tope, she and the camera will treat him like a shining knight.)

Adewunmi's alert performance makes the most of the moments Amoo gives him to express ambivalence about Femi's current behavior, but the pic is rather abrupt about the opportunities it provides for change. Scenes in two different settings remind the boy that he doesn't understand everything there is to know about his childhood, and that he hasn't yet done anything to set his unhappy future in stone. In ambiguously optimistic closing scenes, he seems to reach an understanding of his mother that we aren't allowed to share; letting go of his longstanding resentment may be all that's required for Femi to start over again.

Production company: Prodigal
Cast: Sam Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black, Tai Golding, Nicholas Pinnock, Ruthxjiah Bellenea
Director-screenwriter: Shola Amoo
Producers: Lee Thomas, Myf Hopkins
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Jim Reeve, Robert Halmi
Director of photography: Stil Williams
Production designer: Antonia Lowe
Costume designer: Holly Smart
Editor: Mdhamiri A Nkemi
Composer: Segun Akinola
Casting directors: Shaheen Baig, Aisha Bywaters
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Great Point Media

99 minutes