Fresh, emotional and seriously soulful, ‘The Last Tree’ feels like a new kind of London story. It’s based loosely on its writer-director Shola Amoo’s own experiences as a foster kid in the city. He’s a second-generation Nigerian who grew up in London, and he’s spliced his story with those of other foster children. The result follows a British-Yoruba boy called Femi (played as a teenager by Sam Adewunmi) from an adopted home in Lincolnshire to his mum’s south-east London estate and a harder-edged life. ‘It’s about Femi’s connection to his roots,’ says Adewunmi, ‘and being the first one in his family to have got the UK culture and the London culture.’
There’s an easy chemistry between these two up-and-coming talents as they pose for Time Out’s photographer in a King’s Cross back street. Amoo is a south Londoner rapidly building a rep as a filmmaker; Adewunmi graduated from the same acting school as John Boyega and Letitia Wright and grew up in Camden. Not that the director knew he was a north Londoner when he cast him. ‘The role could have gone,’ deadpans Amoo. In the end, the deal was sealed over an untouched bowl of pho on Kingsland Road. ‘I was too nervous to eat,’ remembers Adewunmi.
Sam Adewunmi as Femi in ‘The Last Tree’.
Was it tricky to step into the shoes of his director? ‘We never specifically spoke about Shola’s experiences,’ says Adewunmi. ‘He’s quite a zen guy, an observer, and I was trying to see those qualities in Femi.’ For his part, Amoo was careful to keep a line between his own experiences and Femi’s. He had fun parlaying his own days at Elephant & Castle’s notoriously anarchic Geoffrey Chaucer School. ‘It was crazy,’ he laughs. ‘Like legendarily crazy. We were trying to capture the energy and the chaos.’
The film’s locations were picked with maximum authenticity in mind – so no soundstages or gratuitous shots of the London Eye. Amoo wanted to film Femi’s flat on SE17’s sprawling Aylesbury Estate, but knew how tricky it could be to get permission (his debut film, ‘A Moving Image’, shows a filmmaker struggling with this exact predicament). ‘Happily, I’d run a film course on the estate and had strong ties with the community,’ he says, ‘otherwise they wouldn’t have let me film there. Respect to Michael Caine – he’s a G – but they set [Caine’s vigilante thriller] “Harry Brown” on the [now demolished] Heygate Estate and it felt symbolic of a sink estate.’
Shola Amoo (right) and Sam Adewunmi (left) on the set of ‘The Last Tree’
As the country seems to turn inward, London’s filmography is slowly heading in the opposite direction. It’s catching up with TV hits like ‘Top Boy’ in embracing new voices and telling overlooked stories – about the immigrant experience and race, and the often teeth-gritting realities of life on the margins. ‘The Last Tree’ is the first in an exciting new wave of diverse, London-set movies, with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s ‘Farming’, Rapman’s ‘Blue Story’ and Sarah Gavron’s ‘Rocks’ following close behind. Amoo isn’t getting carried away, though. ‘I hope it’s not a wave,’ he cautions. ‘Waves crash. We need this to be sustained.’
‘The Last Tree’ is out Fri Sep 27. Read our review here.