The gap between storytelling and story is rarely as wide as in “The Last Tree,” a coming-of-age drama that is rapturously shot and dramatically trite. Writer-director Shola Amoo has made a film that by all reports is close to his own experiences as a Nigerian immigrant in England during the early 2000s, raised by a white foster family in rural Lincolnshire before returning to his birth family and a rebellious adolescence in gritty London. The movie, available as a “virtual screening” via the Coolidge Corner Theatre, picked up prizes on the festival circuit in 2019 and has been hailed in some quarters as a “British ‘Moonlight,’ ” but that only does a disservice to the Barry Jenkins Oscar winner and to what Amoo is trying to achieve here.
The early scenes of “The Last Tree” feature the young Femi (Tai Golding) roughhousing in the mud with his friends in a bucolic Eden; with its smeary, impressionistic colors and use of slow-motion, Stil Williams’s cinematography recalls Terrence Malick at his most ecstatic. Small and fierce, Femi seems to be growing straight and tall, and he begs his kindly foster mother (Denise Black) to let him stay. The bond between the two is very touching and the inevitable return to London with his mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), feels like a lowering boom.
From a life outdoors with friends, Femi arrives in London expected to stay in their flat all day while his mother works. The locals are tough and unforgiving, and Yinka has no time for her son’s sensitivities or patience when he pushes back. In short order, the young Femi has grown into a brooding, miserable teenage version (Samuel Adewunmi), who hates school and hangs with what his mother and we know is the wrong crowd.
Adewunmi is terrifically charismatic as the older Femi, able to smolder the screen without saying a word, and as “The Last Tree” watches one dire event after another unfurl from his point of view, you may ache to the film’s intensity, reminiscent of “Rebel Without a Cause” in its empathy toward the angry, sad, and young. At the same time, Amoo’s story line travels down so many well-worn paths that the text can’t keep up with the style. There’s a tough but caring teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) to challenge Femi; two friends (Rasik Kukoyi and Jayden Elijah) offering differing degrees of misbehavior; a neighborhood drug kingpin (Demmy Ladipo) holding out the prospect of easy money; and a girl, Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea) — a fellow Nigerian with bright blue braids — to bring the hero back to his best self.
Some details — like those braids, or the Cure songs that both Femi and Tope secretly listen to on their Sony Discmans — feel freshly seen and felt, but there aren’t quite enough of them. The film’s attitude toward race, racism, and the clash of African immigrants with British popular culture is implicitly stated, and not as dramatically developed as a viewer might wish, but that seems in keeping with the director’s stated desire to avoid the familiar. In backing away from some cliches, though, the movie backs right into others, like the hero’s climactic oceanfront confrontation with his future that could have stepped over from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.”
This is Amoo’s second feature; it won’t be the last. As “The Last Tree” ends with the potential of better things for Femi, an audience may walk away convinced of its filmmaker’s promise and looking forward to seeing it blossom in full.
THE LAST TREE
Written and directed by Shola Amoo. Starring Samuel Adewunmi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Denise Black. Available via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films. 98 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, violence, drug material)