Writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature is a semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ tale of a black lad who lands in an urban environment after the idyll of a Lincolnshire upbringing. The trope of bad-town versus good-country, inflected by race, are hard to avoid but Amoo deftly challenges some expectations. When we meet young Femi he is being fostered by Mary, superbly played by Denise Black who subtly conveys the conflicts that must be experienced by foster carers: the love and care as well as the pain of departure. It’s no surprise that Femi, when he is moved to Brixton, South London, in the care of an inadequate mum, suffers from the change.
Much of the film focuses on the 16-year-old Femi, approaching his GCSE exams, and his conflicts with local gangs, peer group and teachers. As Akala’s brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire shows, there are real tropes involved in growing up as a black lad in an inner city environment; they are not simply generic. The need to act ‘tough’ and portray a hard image, that Akala describes, is superbly showed in the film when we’re party to Femi listening to The Cure on his headphones but tells his mate it’s Tupac. Sensitivity in males is not much of an option, neither are Femi’s dalliances with crime, another accessory of the poverty-stricken environment. Sam Adewumni brilliantly portrays the conflicts that lurk beneath his tough demeanour. Amoo strikingly uses extreme close-ups, and the soundtrack, to create expressionist moments that emphasise it’s Femi’s experience we are sharing.
Nicholas Pinnock is suitably charismatic in the role of a sympathetic teacher and, generally, I found the classroom scenes authentic (I am an ex-teacher) which is not my usual experience. However, I’m not sure how many teachers go ‘above and beyond’ the way Pinnock’s does but this is melodrama so exaggeration is more than acceptable. I couldn’t work out the symbolism of ‘the last tree’; though trees are often present in the mise en scene; then again, trees are often present wherever you are (apparently there are more trees than people in London).
If there is a false note in the film then it is the concluding scenes in Lagos, Nigeria. Femi is introduced to his father and while it is clear that Amoo is not suggesting that going ‘back to Africa’ is a solution, I was slightly puzzled by the ending on the beach. Maybe it’s not about Africa but a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1960), the classic nouvelle vague ‘coming of age’ film. Regardless, The Last Tree is well worth seeing and Amoo is a talent to watch.
I think I liked this even more than you. So many people had told me how good it was that I was prepared for a slight disappointment but I was completely knocked out. I just thought ‘Wow!’.
Two key points I think might be added to your post. First, it is important that the film’s second half is set in the 2000s. I didn’t observe that, but I ‘felt it’. It’s important for that sense of the Nigerian identity being problematic in the school setting. I don’t have any experience of London schools after 1990 except as an advisor/examiner but I remember the possible tensions in the 1970s/80s between the second generation ‘West Indian’ students and the West Africans who at that time were often first generation migrants.
I do disagree with you about the Nigerian episode in the film. I loved the scene in Femi’s father’s house. Apart from anything else, it helped to show that Femi’s mother wasn’t ‘inadequate’ but ‘excluded’. Everything in the narrative is from Femi’s perspective so she appears to be unable to cope when he first returns to live with her. But he must have learned something in Lagos?
I don’t know why it is ‘The Last Tree’ either. The photography in the fens (it must be South Lincolnshire?) emphasises the flatness of a mostly tree-less landscape. In West African villages, the baobab is traditionally the tree under which the elders sit and the children are taught. Is this too fanciful as a symbolic image for an African identity?