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Film Review: The Last Tree

8 October 19 words: Jamie Morris

Without a big-name actor or existing franchise to lean on, The Last Tree has likely flown under many moviegoers’ radars - but greenhorn writer/director Shola Amoo has crafted a remarkable coming-of-age drama that will firmly plant his name on the map...

Director: SholaAmoo

Starring: Nicholas Pinnock, Denise Black, Sam Adewunmi

Running time: 98 mins

The Last Tree begins with an idyllic childhood scene of four best friends running wild in a vast, lush field. One of these boys is Femi (Tai Golding), entirely unaware of the fact that his life is on the verge of a huge change. Femi hasn’t always lived here - he was taken into care at a young age, but soon grew attached to his foster carer Mary (Denise Black), who one day breaks the news that he’ll be returning to live with his birth mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) in London.

Everything Femi knows changes overnight - he awakes in his new home to an unfamiliar Nigerian breakfast and an endless list of chores before his mum hurries off to work. Yinka returns to find her son has refused to help around the house at all, leading her to hit him with a broom as punishment and creating a schism that grows until Femi is a teen (played by Sam Adewunmi).

Partially based on Amoo’s own childhood, Femi’s tale feels grounded and authentic, with almost no person involved reduced to wholly good or bad. The cast’s impeccable performances help to craft multifaceted characters who are all trying to find their place in the world, particularly Femi, who is being gradually dragged deeper into a life of crime by older-brother figure and drug kingpin Mace (Demmy Ladipo).

Amoo always keeps the audience in touch with how Femi is feeling without the need of a cheesy voiceover. For instance, we are shown him studying for his exams through a shot of his reflection in the mirror, boxing him in a tight, claustrophobic space that contrasts with the warm and spacious scenes of his former foster home.

The Last Tree is a landmark achievement of independent British cinema and black-centric storytelling

Similarly, the film’s music assists in illustrating aspects of Femi’s character, such as the touching main theme that evokes the comfort of his years living with Mary, and his taste in Brit-pop that he conceals from his classmates.

The drama lies in what direction Femi is going to take his life in, culminating in an emotional explosion against his teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock). At this point, the audience can see several distinct outcomes to this brief one-hour and 40-minute story - but it doesn’t necessarily wind up where you might expect.

The film’s only noticeable drawback is that its story structure is quite choppy - as soon as Amoo achieves what he wants to for that scene, we jump straight to another moment, making it difficult to discern which stage of the story you’re at. Once the plot approaches its third and final act, the audience is left wondering how long is left as numerous opportunities to close the curtain come and go.

That being said, Amoo absolutely hits the mark with an amazingly powerful conclusion that sends its message loud and clear. The Last Tree is a landmark achievement of independent British cinema and black-centric storytelling that, regardless of its wider commercial success, will be remembered by all who watch it as a truly excellent work of art and will hopefully bear fruit once awards season comes around.

Did you know? This is only director Shola Amoo's second feature film, after 2016's A Moving Image

The Last Tree is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 10 October

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