The Last Tree – Sundance London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review
Fortunately, there had not been any spoilers published about The Last Tree from the press screenings that occurred earlier in the week during the Sundance London film festival. However, from the short, positive comments that were made, the anticipation built up that this was going to be one of the must-see films of the year! There was therefore a lot of excitement from this reviewer to be watching the film at its European premiere during the Sundance London film festival!
The title of the film gives nothing away as the film unveils a coming of age tale filled with questions about identity and cultural differences. As viewers, we are initially presented with a portrayal of the golden years of childhood filled with boys running through fields conveying such positivity and innocence. The cinematography is glorious at such point with the sun setting over the fields. The camera follows the young boys very closely with their triumphant victory cries at different parts of the fields. Everything seems so joyous at that stage in rural England.
Semi-autobiographical in nature, The Last Tree, is director Shola Amoo’s second feature. His previous film, A Moving Image, depicted life in a Brixton that had been subject to gentrification. Having enjoyed his directorial debut, I was certainly interested to see the direction that The Last Tree would take.
Scenes within south London can equally be found in The Last Tree, which connect the two films, as the protagonist Femi’s life is transferred from the idyllic setting of his foster home to the gritty, urban streets of London when his Nigerian mother returns to claim him.
The passage of time is signalled by close ups of the protagonist as a child which are swiftly replaced by images of Femi as a teenager played by Sam Adewumni. The skilful, stylish cinematography employed to convey the elliptical style was reminiscent of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood and indeed the Oscar winning, Moonlight. There are further parallels to Moonlight that can also be drawn at later stages in the film.
One of such parallels to Moonlight is due to the use of colour in the film. Within the scenes in London there is a noticeably sombre colouring as a stark contrast to the earlier sun filled childhood scenes. However, there is also the use of unnatural neon lighting with the characters at times bathed in shades of red from unknown sources or indeed from shop lighting or lamps depicting the underground world that Femi unwittingly joins.
The notion of colour transcends the cinematography, as it is also present within Femi’s encounters with the opposite sex at school. In such scenes, there are issues of colourism invoked as a teenage girl is bullied for being ‘too dark’. The camera lighting does, however, beautifully complement all of the skin tone varieties throughout the film to provide a sense of beauty that pervades despite the spiralling violence that ensues.
Some of the violence is initially at home and directed towards Femi at the hands of his frustrated single mother. In a scene that mirrors an earlier scene when Femi was a child and returned home late from school whilst in rural England, there is, however, that inescapable sense of dread at the end of such replicated scene in London as the camera fades to black.
Other scenes touch upon the violence as part of the assimilation process that many first-generation children may encounter. Not only are there the issues surrounding fitting in with peers but also the external influences as well as the conflict between the culture of the home environment, with immigrant parents, and the culture of the country of birth. The film depicts this inner struggle sensitively where Femi can be heard through headphones, by the audience, to be listening to bands such as The Cure but instead announces to his friends that he is listening to Tupac. It is in moments such as these that the emotional weight of the film can be felt in terms of the questions it poses concerning belonging and identity but also that sense of masculine identity.
Religious symbolism is also interwoven within the film. This symbolism highlighted the differences between the modern versus traditional ideas, reminiscent of the film Birds of Passage, by comparing Christianity to traditional Nigerian religions and that apparent conflict between Femi’s parents as a result. Other iconic elements include the inspirational male teacher attempting to instil positive change in a situation, where the impact of an absentee father and that sense of abandonment is profoundly felt vicariously through Femi.
The cinematography throughout is quite simply striking and provided a very mesmerising, visceral quality overall to the film. There are impressive angles of the camera panning in a school playground as a rotational shot, vibrant market scenes in Nigeria and equally close ups of a very impressive Sam Adewunmi, with the use of a camera dolly, during the surreal, dreamlike elements illustrating Femi’s inner turmoil.
This film may leave you breathless but triumphant at the end with a scene similar to the ending of Girlhood that signalled a seismic shift and hope for the protagonist. Thankfully, the film has now received a UK distributor, Picturehouse Entertainment, and will therefore be released in September.
I was certainly delighted to have watched The Last Tree, as part of Sundance London, and will aim to re-watch it later in the year. During the Q&A, the director did reveal the genesis behind the film’s title, but I shall resist revealing such a spoiler, for now! However, I would certainly recommend watching this aesthetically pleasing tale.
I was also fortunate to speak with Shola following the screening about aspects of the film whilst enjoying the views from the rooftop bar of the Picturehouse Central cinema, which was serving delicious Jack Daniel’s whiskey based cocktails on that warm summer’s evening! This film is a must see for 2019!
The Last Tree will be on UK release on 27 September 2019