Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree gives the impression that Femi (Tai Golding) is the only black kid in Lincolnshire during the 2000s. Despite that, he has a happy childhood, but that childhood must end abruptly. His foster mother Mary (Denise Black) must give him up. That’s because his biological mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) decides that she is able to accommodate him. This feature, then, is about whether Femi can survive the transition between Lincolnshire to London.
This film, available in TIFF’s digital platform, shows the differences between rural and urban life, and makes out urban life as the worse option. This is a semi-autobiographical coming of age film. And it shows that yes, Femi might have more support in London, like a supportive teacher (Nicholas Pinnock). But he also becomes a target for bullies who pick on him for having a Nigerian name. And that bullying comes from other Black classmates.
Femi fights back from all the bullying, but Yinka sees that as him getting into trouble. Her supposed antipathy towards him drives him away from her, making him prefer to hang out with kids his age as opposed to her. This is when the dialogue shifts, as 16-year-old Femi (Sam Adewunmi) adapts the vernacular that his peers use. He also adapts toxic ideas from them, like getting into gangs or targeting other black students who ‘don’t fit the mold’.
The film only spends fifteen minutes in Lincolnshire while the rest of it depicts London. There is an impressionistic air in both chapters. And sure, features should have their freedom in depicting certain places differently. But the tonal differences between both places are too drastic. Its focus on those tones also puts character development on the wayside, especially that of Yinka’s motivations.
Yinka’s motivations are not the only inconsistent thing here. Another major female character, if you can say that is a black girl that Femi and his friends bully for having dark skin. She is also a goth kid who serves as a wake-up call for Femi. She tells him that he changes too late for her, but surprise, she backtracks on that declaration as they kiss in front of the other students. What is disappointing about this scene is that the tracking shots feel too Spike Lee.
And that is not the only scene that borrows too heavily from other directors. The depiction of Lincolnshire feels too Spike Jonze, Femi being one of the shire’s feral happy children. There is also a PSA section on why kids should not hang out with gangsters. And it all leads to and ending with a trip to Nigeria that only exists to strengthen Femi’s bond with Yinka. There is so much potential here, especially from its strong cast, but all of this seems like a first draft.
The Last Tree is currently available to rent on the TIFF Digital Platform.