Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Last Tree – a complex, personal and moving piece of storytelling (QFT from Friday 4 October)

Is the first rule of parenting not to mess up your kids? Or is it keeping them alive? Maybe the two are linked. They’re the kind of questions that jump out from writer/director Shola Amoo’s extraordinary film The Last Tree which follows a young Nigerian lad, Femi, now living in the UK, as he comes of age and tries to break free from the clingy, spidery webs that others assume to weave around him.

The action begins in a loving foster home in rural Lincolnshire (with Denise Black playing Mary), before a culture shift to a more draconian environment living with his fiery birth mother in inner London and a final, brief but revelatory, visit to meet his kith and kin in Lagos.

It’s as much a film about clashing cultures and community assumptions as it is about clashing sets of aspirations. There are neat repeated riffs across the three locations and two actors (first Tai Golding, then Sam Adewunmi) who play Femi aged 11 and 16. Knocking a football about is a great way to judge the lad’s mood and impulse. Being knocked about by his mother and a local gang leader is another way of visualising the power dynamics at play.

The cinematography develops a language for each location, rural fields, urban jungle and a busy Nigerian streetscape, all coloured with mellow oranges and golden hour shots.

Gbemisola Ikumelo keeps up a mask as a scary and domineering mother Yinka, an active advocate of a sharp tongue and corporal punishment, yet her third act reveal about what has shaped her character is grippingly understood by up-to-now angry Femi and within the audience’s likely bounds of acceptance.

Adewunmi captures the impression that 16-year-old Femi is being pulled along by a rip tide and struggling to find a way to get purchase on the sandy seabed to escape. His longing but hesitant encounters with a fellow pupil (Ruthxjiah Bellenea) offer a fleeting glimpse at a softer side to his sullen and toughened character.

The opulence of the final scenes brings a whole new perspective to the previous hour and a half, a new set of filters through which to view motivations and methods.

It’s easy to make comparisons between Moonlight and The Last Tree. Yet the Britishness of the locations and early 2000’s culture give this film a much greater sense of urgency. The systemic failure to support children – and parents – resonates loudly more than a decade after the Nokia-wielding, Sony Discman-listening teenage character.

The Last Tree is a battle between the traps being laid by the local gangsters (Demmy Ladipo portrays a particularly brutal and handsoff mobster), Femi’s unempathetic single parent mother, and the persevering school principal (Nicholas Pinnock) who never gives up. Every decision by every major character is seen to have a cost. But the decision to attend a screening is well rewarded.

Shola Amoo has created a complex piece of storytelling, that’s moving, personal and yet hints at the universal nature of what drives people to act in questionable ways. There aren’t many films that make me want to applaud at the end of a screening.

The Last Tree will be shown at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 4 October.

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