SUNDANCE LONDON – ‘The Last Tree’ is a Black, British Tale of Fragmented Identity

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At the turbulent age of sixteen, British-Nigerian teenager Femi (Sam Adewunmi) finds himself caught between countless identities. Raised in the countryside, his childhood is little but an idyllic memory, the beautiful landscapes and friendships with local children bruised by lies he was told by his white foster mother Molly; under the belief he would be able to stay there forever, a sudden move to live with his birth mother in inner-city London caused irreparable trauma. The Last Tree sensitively examines this trauma, assigning blame to no one particular party, instead reflecting on the necessity of love and trust in any familial relationship.

Femi exists as a central point within multiple conflicts, as his own anger and helplessness are continually complicated by the circumstances surrounding him. His birth mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) struggles to make ends meet in a dingy 20th floor flat, and this pent-up frustration is released through her responses to Femi – as Yinka assigns him the position of ‘man of the house’, her son’s every failure to meet her expectations is met with violence. In a relationship built almost entirely on hostility, neither party can be what the other requires, resulting in a suffocatingly negative home environment.

School life isn’t much better for Femi. As a child, he was the only black face in a sea of white students; as a teenager, he is one amongst many, thrown into an entirely new cultural space and expected to adapt instantly. Much to Femi’s quiet disapproval, racism remains an issue even at his all-black school – in one scene, two boys bully a classmate for being “too dark”, an important observation on levels of privilege even within oppressed groups, and a reminder of the film’s relevance to modern British society. Intra-community observations such as this add a depth of social realism to The Last Tree, firmly situating a specifically black story within the overwhelmingly white British cinematic canon.

Peer pressure extends beyond the schoolyard and manifests more seriously in the form of Mace (Demmy Ladipo), a local drug dealer who takes advantage of Femi’s desire to fit in. Convincing the boy that his alternative is an existence of poverty and unhappiness, Mace could easily come across as a villain. Writer-director Shola Amoo, however, laces the behaviour of his characters with enough context that, upon reflection, Mace is little more than a projection of Femi’s potential future, and a warning sign of what may be to come. With our protagonist’s goodness of heart in mind, it is difficult to condemn any of the individuals surrounding him, from the aggressive mother to the selfish dealer to the reckless friends; Femi, the quiet boy with a fractured identity, sees parts of himself mirrored in each.

Inner-city London is not the sole catalyst for Femi’s problems, however – his deep-set issues will not be solved by escaping one particular environment – and it is not the faults of one community which lie at the heart of his trauma. On a trip back to Lincolnshire to visit his foster mother, the camera settles on another black boy, sat in the same seat as Femi did all those years ago, being gently lectured to eat his greens by the well-meaning but misguided Molly. The boy smiles toothily, but this joy is not shared by all; Femi remains eerily still, seemingly considering if this child has also been lied to, and if he too will one day be cast aside like a second-hand toy, forced to leave a whole life behind to live with a woman he barely knows.

In the cyclical nature of this story, it is up to Femi to strike out and form his own identity, and with his GCSE’s looming, the importance of his decisions has never been greater. Trapped in a constant dilemma inflicted by the choices of others, his only path to happiness is that tread by his own two feet –  a journey that will ring true for anyone who has ever faced a traumatic home life. As a coming-of-age film, The Last Tree captures the claustrophobic pressure of the teenage experience, compounded by institutional racism; as Shola Amoo’s sophomore feature, this meticulous insight proves the director to be an exciting addition to British independent film.

by Megan Christopher

Screenshot 2019-06-02 at 18.36.03Megan Christopher is a freelance film and television journalist based in Manchester. Her particular filmic interest lies in portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community, mental health and women in general. She is co-founder of Much Ado About Cinema, and has written for outlets such as Little White Lies, Sight & Sound and Girls on Tops. Follow her on Twitter at @TinyFilmLesbian

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