The word “Brexit” is never uttered in “The Last Tree,” yet the U.K.’s current identity crisis — its surging, hostile preoccupation with defining the parameters of Britishness after a more culturally porous period of history — reverberates quietly throughout Shola Amoo’s sophomore feature. Amoo’s own childhood inspired this plainly heartfelt study of a Nigerian-British boy, raised in a white rural community, whose sense of self changes drastically when he moves to a diverse, deprived area of London. The coming-of-age saga that ensues thoughtfully alternates universal adolescent insecurities with urgently specific minority politics — filtered through a first-person perspective that itself oscillates between furious clarity and vivid confusion.
Confusion, be it over one’s identity, one’s emotions or one’s place in the world, is actually what “The Last Tree” depicts with most assurance. Switching to outright narrative cinema after his restless multimedia debut “A Moving Image,” Amoo elastically distorts sound and image to convey the agitated, evolving inner life of unmoored teenager Femi, whose English upbringing and African heritage have never quite made peace with each other.
It’s on more prosaic aspects of storytelling that “The Last Tree” occasionally falters, particularly in a second half that wanders half-heartedly into more familiar London gangland territory. Neither fully subverting nor delivering on those genre trappings, the film is as frustrated as its protagonist in its pursuit of closure. Prospective distributors may draw comparisons to another British Sundance premiere from this decade, Sally El Hosaini’s excellent “My Brother the Devil,” which likewise enriched its troubled-youth template with keen sociocultural detail.
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The film’s woozy opening minutes may lead viewers to expect a dewier memory piece than the anxious, conflict-heavy drama that lies ahead. In a suspended state of tangerine-lit bliss, shot with magic-hour widescreen grandeur by d.p. Stil Williams, 11-year-old Femi (charismatic newcomer Tai Golding) plays and tussles with his white schoolmates on the sprawling flatlands of Lincolnshire, before returning home to the tender care of foster mother Mary (Denise Black). Amoo has reason to linger in lush slow-motion on such moments: Perhaps we’re already seeing them as heightened, perfected and preserved in the mind’s eye of our protagonist, for whom such carefree living abruptly ceases when his biological mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) returns to claim him.
Jarringly transferred from a middle-class country idyll to a boxy council apartment in rough-edged south London, the lad is forced to reckon with his outsider status in ways from which he was previously protected. His overt African identity makes him a target for more naturalized school bullies, though he feels no less alienated from Yinka, a God-fearing Nigerian immigrant loyal to the traditions and values of her homeland, and exasperated to the point of abusiveness by her son’s lack of reverence for same. “I didn’t raise you to be rude,” she scolds, to which his reply is as cruel as it is fair: “You didn’t raise me.” Though Amoo’s script is sparse on the details of Yinka’s backstory and Femi’s fostering, Ikumelo’s bruised portrayal of a mother stranded between equal reserves of pride and guilt implicitly fills in the gaps.
We leap forward a few years to find Femi (now an imposing Sam Adewumni) surly and street-hardened, if not entirely assimilated: He tells his friends he listens to Tupac, though it’s The Cure that pulses through his headphones. The chasm between him and Yinka has only widened and cooled; when small-time local gangster Mace (Demmy Ladipo) takes an interest in the rudderless teen, an age-old fork in the road is reached. Amoo is less interested in the mechanics of this moral choice than he is in evoking Femi’s addled state of mind as he makes it: Blown-out lighting and deftly warped sound design impose a slurred, fugue-like quality on the film’s social realism, as his carefully managed array of identities clash and collapse under pressure.
Less sharply evoked, however, is the surrounding fabric of Femi’s everyday life, outside of his stunted relationship with Yinka. His male peers and associates want for detail and distinction, as does the hazy, glowing-red underworld he’s drawn into, while the character of a sternly supportive teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) — present at all ages, it seems — is thinly drawn. A romantic bond with an outcast African student (Ruthxjiah Bellenea, making a piercing impression in only a couple of scenes) is tentatively broached and left dangling.
Femi’s life, then, is an inchoate one-man-show, with only intermittent oxygen for others in his orbit, and the film follows suit. “The Last Tree” (a title that remains opaque throughout) may not cover as extensive or as intricate a timeframe as Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” but it echoes that film’s understanding of disenfranchised masculinity in glitchy progress. The amped-up class warfare and anti-immigrant sentiment of modern-day Britain, meanwhile, have only made Femi’s liminal identity — British, African and black, but not enough of any of those things for some people’s liking — harder for him to embrace. Some teenagers have the luxury of living up to expectations; it’s all he can do to live them down.