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Film review: The Last Tree

26 September 2019

Where is home here, asks Stephen Brown

Sam Adewumni as Femi in The Last Tree

Sam Adewumni as Femi in The Last Tree

IN THE film The Last Tree (Cert. 15), its director, Shola Amoo, presents variations on the theme of one of Jesus’s best-known parables. It is no accident that the company behind this film is called Prodigal Productions. But which far country is it that this particular son departs to?

Femi (Tai Golding) is a young British boy with Nigerian roots living an idyllic existence in rural Lincolnshire with his long-time foster parent, Mary (Denise Black). In contrast with the parable, it isn’t the son who chooses to leave the place that he considers home. His birth mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), reclaims him, and he is transplanted into the urban blight of south London. He never really recovers from Mary’s broken promise to keep him and is resentful of Yinka’s abandoning him until now.

Even at 16, where the action next takes us, Femi (now played by Sam Adewunmi) is still hurting. His mother’s strict Yoruba brand of Christianity puts the emphasis on tough love, alternating beatings for perceived misdemeanours with showering unwelcome blessings on him. His continued uprootedness makes him susceptible to anyone who gives him a sense of belonging. Craving his unknown father, he succumbs to the apparent care of a local mobster, Mace (Demmy Ladipo), who inducts him into criminal activities.

Nagging away at him is a recognition that he is not at home — with himself or the environment. Yinka may tell him that Femi means “God loves me”, but that is not how it feels. Inside his head is dissonance. Femi repeatedly gazes straight to camera while the sound design produces a cacophony of distorted voices and droning atmospherics. Yet, for all this white noise, here is a character who does not cease from exploring. What and where are his true roots?

Soul friends come in a variety of guises to assist his endeavours. Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), a girl with startlingly purple braids, is bullied at school. Paradoxically, when Femi intervenes, it not so much she but he who is rescued. His teacher Mr Williams (Nicholas Pinnock), with whom he fights, turns out to have been, like him, lost in the dark until coming to his senses and returning home. Femi recognises in him a future role-model.

Williams mirrors the parable’s father. Femi is a long way off course, but his teacher throws caution to the wind and reaches out to him. Spoiler alert coming up: after reconciliation with his mother, Femi and she take off for Nigeria. There he meets his biological father, now an opulent Christian pastor, clearly a believer in prosperity theology. Even the couches at home, including the scallop shell of pilgrimage, are decorated in gold leaf. Why did you abandon us, asks Femi. “She didn’t know what submission was.” That reply makes Femi realise that it is the father who has transgressed, not the son.

More like the elder brother of the parable, Femi has been resentful of others’ good fortune. He is now free to choose whether to remain outside in the cold or embrace his true inheritance.

On release from 27 September.

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