08 Sep 19
Like Francis lee (God's Own Country) and Michael Pearce (Beast), Shola Amoo – with his semi-autobiographical drama, The Last Tree – sits firmly at the crest of a new wave of bright and aesthetically assured British filmmakers. Collaborating once more with Stil Williams, the cinematographer Amoo worked with on his short film Dear Mr Shakespeare, the writer-director imbues the rolling vistas of Lincolnshire – The Last Tree's idyllic first setting – with an ethereal dewiness, which is where we meet his protagonist, Femi, for the first time.
Much like Chiron in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, a comparison bound to be made often, thanks to both films' intertwining themes of peer-impressed masculinity, Femi's story stretches to a few phases of his formative years, each played out with sombre authenticity by some wonderfully cast newcomers.
Tai Golding fills the scuffed shoes of 11-year-old Femi, who shares a close bond with a group of friends, playing football against the backdrop of the idyllic Lincolnshire countryside, while at home he resides under the peaceful gaze of his foster mother, Mary (Denise Black). The steady rhythm of Femi's rural life, however, is abruptly cut short by the arrival of his Nigerian birth mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), who has decided to reclaim her son and bring him home to south London, and begin a new life together.
The seismic shift in Femi's surroundings forces him to form a thick skin fast, as his unfamiliar council estate dwelling, and new school shakes loose any sense of identity that he held in Lincolnshire. Most vivid amidst the mayhem is Femi's complex relationship with Yinka. Amoo purposely leaves the reasons for Femi's fostering elusive, but through Ikumelo's textured performance we see a woman who has endured hardship, and now grapples, frustrated but determined, at whatever loose spools tie her to her estranged son.
The arrival of older Femi (Sam Adewunmi, who matches Golding's disarmingly sincere screen presence scene for scene) weaves further strands into an already dense and fascinating narrative. A surly, street-smart teenager who still secretly listens to The Cure, Femi does what he can to stay afloat in his surroundings, which are captured by Williams' outstanding camera-work.
The Last Tree will go on to be a beautiful chapter in British film culture that captures exactly what it means to feel adrift in a society that was never designed with you in mind. Amoo does exceedingly well at finding magic and hope in his story, without ever muddling the messages that evolve with Femi's trajectory. It's an astute and lovingly crafted fictional debut, and a hopeful entry into a new era of British film-making that, like Femi, is creating a new identity all of its own.
Correction: The original copy for this article (which appeared in published form) said Stil Williams worked on Amoo's film A Moving Image when it should have said Dear Mr Shakespeare.
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Berlinale 2019 as told by Paul Ridd, Acquisitions and Distribution Executive at Picturehouse.