‘The Last Tree’: An Imperfect, But Hypnotic Coming-of-Age Story That Deserves Your Attention [Sundance Review]

Can you still recall that sense of wonder and constant curiosity you had when you were a kid? Remember when everything seemed possible? And then, as you got older, the world became a different entity entirely—one that left you longing for the days where the pessimism and paranoia of adulthood could not be further from your mind. All that to say, if you’ve ever found yourself torn between the cynical grown-up you are now and the naïve child you once were, “The Last Tree” may be the movie for you.

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As a boy growing up in two worlds, Femi has no place to call home. Raised by a loving British foster mother, but born to an equally affectionate, but disenfranchised Nigerian birth mom, the clash between the boy’s heritage does little to help with this sense of not belonging. After Femi moves in with his birth mother, he is forced to acclimate from the escape of the rural countryside to an unforgiving concrete jungle. As his environment shifts, so does Femi, who soon grows from an innocent boy to a street-hardened man. Torn between following a life of crime and pursuing his education, Femi must decide what path he wants to travel down before it’s too late.

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It’s no secret that filmmakers love to explore the complexities of adolescence, hence the countless number of movies that compose the coming-of-age subgenre. Whether they stick within the realm of realism or not, these stories often follow the same beats; soul searching, rites of passage, and first love all function as familiar, frustratingly trite trademarks. However, shockingly, “The Last Tree” succeeds in separating itself from the pack by employing a daring, but restrained, showcase of visual language and never once slips into schmaltz.

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In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any hints of conventionality in “The Last Tree,” especially where exposition is concerned. Characters come and go without formal introductions or any hints to their backstory. Accompanied by naturalistic camerawork, this method of storytelling allows audiences to experience the movie solely through Femi’s eyes—his confusion is your confusion, and his fears are your fears. Similarly, masculinity, perception, and self-discovery encompass the thematical framework the film is built upon.

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Director Shola Amoo paints a world mired by loneliness and sorrow in vibrantly impressionistic strokes. Countryside horizons fill the frame with a sense of awe and freedom, while the claustrophobic asphalt of the city keeps viewers tense, twisting their stomachs into knots. In place of dialogue, Amoo focuses on the intricate expressions of his actors, allowing a sharp inhale or grimace to speak a thousand words. “The Last Tree” is driven by an introvert’s understanding of how the world works: it is quiet, understated, but emotionally charged. Additionally, both Tai Golding and Sam Adewumni (the actors portray Femi as a youth and teenager respectively) offer moving performances, the primary factors that permit Femi’s search for identity to reach a mostly satisfying resolution.

Furthermore, customary storytelling and nostalgia are tossed aside to make room for tasteful experimentation. “The Last Tree” floats from scene to scene, imparting the sensation of floating in a hazy oasis, allowing your most vivid memories to serve as your only source of entertainment. Remarkably, Amoo binds the film’s abstract and gritty elements with wispy, gossamer-like threads, allowing the dual components to bleed into each other, forming a cohesive combination.

However, akin to its protagonist, “The Last Tree” occasionally trips on its own feet trying to find its way. Although its ambient approach to structure works to its merit, the film does skimp on the substance at times, opting to set style on the forefront. Moreover, while the hazy atmosphere and dreamy images burn themselves into your brain, the same cannot be said for the story. The plot may slink down exotic back alleys in an effort to avoid tropes, but the destination remains the same; notably, the film’s anticlimactic conclusion is remarkably weak.

Relatedly, the lack of a resonant emotional impact sorely affects the shelf life of “The Last Tree,” and one can’t help but wonder how the film may have fared if its story development complemented its remarkable visuals. Although the aforementioned lack of exposition allows “The Last Tree” to dodge character archetypes, it simultaneously deprives viewers of fully immersing themselves in the story. Admirably, the film encourages active viewing, but audience members may find themselves trying to fill in too many gaps when the filmmaking falters.

Still, “The Last Tree” retains its integrity despite momentary lapses in judgment. It’s a film that challenges the norm by breaking away from what’s expected. Whether it fully succeeds or not, any work of art that showcases this much passion and effort deserves recognition, and “The Last Tree” deserves all the attention it can muster. [B-]

Check out all our coverage from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival here.