The Last Tree has been dubbed “the British Moonlight” — a lofty comparison that it nevertheless mostly warrants.
Like Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture-winner, the semiautobiographical sophomore feature from writer/director Shola Amoo features a three-act structure, a young black male lead played by different actors at different ages, a flawed single mother, the temptations of crime and violence, plus mature, emotional explorations of masculinity.
The differences are evident from the opening frame, however, as preteen Nigerian immigrant Femi (Tai Golding) plays with his best friends — three white boys who, with him, call themselves “Wolf Gang” — in gorgeous rural Lincolnshire.
Despite apparently being the lone person of color in the town, his support system of these pals and loving foster mother Mary (British TV veteran Denise Black) is more diverse and traditional than Chiron’s Miami experiences in Moonlight, though it’s altered just as quickly and tragically.
Against his wishes, Femi’s estranged mom, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo), brings him to live with her in south London, disrupting his happiness and creating a rift between them that’s only deepened when The Last Tree jumps ahead to check in with him as a teen.
Now played by the physically striking (and somewhat imposing) Samuel Adewunmi, our protagonist is an even more appealing powder keg, and Amoo films his hooligan ways with a Jenkins-like technical acumen — even throwing in a Spike Lee homage with Femi “floating” down the sidewalk in a particularly pivotal scene.
The young man’s wooing by local kingpin Mace (Demmy Ladipo) to pursue a life of crime is less imaginative but sufficiently entertaining and sets up an intriguing enough battle over Femi’s future as his mother and teacher Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock) struggle to save him before it’s too late.
Where The Last Tree goes from there is perhaps a little too clean in its resolutions, though they’re well earned, including a visually rich coda in Lagos. The end result likely won’t win Amoo an Oscar, but it definitely sets up him and Adewunmi as talents to watch.
Available to rent starting June 26 via grailmoviehouse.com