There’s a lot to emotionally unpack from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s directorial debut Farming. The one unmistakable thing is his brave vision and commitment, delving into his personal history to bring his story to the screen. And as a brutal coming of age story, Farming is a gut-wrenching and visceral portrayal of male masculinity and cultural identity.
As a low budget British film, you immediately accept its frailties and its shortcomings in rationalising its lack of depth, nuance or its lack of tendency to stay focused to really articulate its purpose or weight behind its societal decisions. For something deeply personal for the director who had lived that life of trauma, cultural displacement and the psychological rejection of blackness where Enitan’s (Zephan Amissah and Damson Idris) troubled life leads him down the path where he’s ‘adopted’ by white skinheads, you sense the immediate sensitivity and subsequent pullback from delving any deeper into its troubling psychosis. Its heart is in the right place; it wants its audience to feel every instance of its brutal weight and reality, and yet, its redemptive arc (as predictable as you could imagine) is far too brief to feel anything remotely satisfying as a conclusion, especially when you’ve gone through the equivalent of a cinematic ordeal. But based on its merits and intentions alone, Farming taps into the same synergy that’s found in Shane Meadows’ This is England or the 2018 Oscar-nominated short documentary film Black Sheep. Farming is not as eloquent or dares itself to be as investigative as those examples mentioned, but the company it wants to associate with relishes at how environmentally relentless, tragic, raw and unapologetic it is in its depiction.
And those merits and intentions are brought together on screen in a practice which I had very little knowledge of as a British-born Nigerian. Between the 60s and 80s, Nigerian parents would send their kids to white foster parents to take care of their children to secure a better future for their family (otherwise known as the title of this very movie). If anything, Farming could easily have been a documentary, exploring the phenomenon in greater detail, considering how so much of Black British history has been consigned away to the land that time forgot.
But to make an audacious yet extraordinary leap, Agbaje’s film shares some solidarity with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. They both tackle the alpha male dynamics within masculinity from its centralised character. Farming is not as emotively poetic, choosing to savagely brutalise its conviction rather indulge in the stylistic beauty that Jenkins deploys without fault. But on an empathetic level, Farming does a satisfactory job in pulling together its cultural juxtaposes (being a second-class citizen in the UK versus Nigerian traditions) and how someone’s mental state and identity can be shaped and torn apart by the environment they embody.
That essence is brought to life by Zephan Amissah and Damson Idris and their transformative performance as Enitan. As a young boy, Amissah’s vulnerability and notable displacement between two cultural lifestyles plant the seed for Idris to follow in his footsteps. With that blueprint mastered, Idris takes the teenager role to terrifying new heights where fitting in with his abusers and tormentors means the complete and harrowing breakdown of his mental state. We talk about how actors go to extreme lengths for their ‘method acting’, but Damson Idris belongs in that same company, overwhelming you with his conviction that leaves a powerful, profound and lingering thought at the tragedy of the entire situation.
Agbaje’s flair for directing comes naturally, using the cinematic palette to evoke haunting images and horrific language that cut deep. It’s not for the faint-hearted, conjuring up shocking images where young Enitan covers himself in talcum powder, or the targeted bullying by the Tilbury Skins (led by John Dalgleish’s intimidating performance as Levi), where he is humiliatingly forced to strip and subjected to white spray paint.
With its supporting cast, arguably Kate Beckinsale as Ingrid Carpenter has the meatier role in comparison to Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s thinly veiled Ms. Dapo. They don’t escape the stereotypical framing, but Beckinsale’s duality between nastiness and protectiveness typifies the uncomfortable ignorance and lack of cultural understanding that’s frequently laced with racist language towards her fostered Nigerian kids living in her home. Unfortunately, in comparison to Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who is phenomenally talented) is underused as Enitan’s counterbalance as a mentor and teacher. Her role simplified and reduced to being on the receiving end of the impending violence.
Will this film please everyone? Probably not – it’s bleak, grim and offers only small glimmers of subtlety to offset its troubling subject matter. It is unquestionably flawed and rough around the edges. But as his first feature film, the actor turned director Agbaje shows promise.
Farming may not be the best-executed story, but with a captivating performance by Damson Idris, nevertheless, it is still a story worth telling.
Dir: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Scr: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Cast: Damson Idris, Kate Beckinsale, John Dalgleish, Jaime Winstone, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zephan Amissah, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Prd: Janice Williams, François Ivernel, Andrew Levitas, Michael London
DOP: Kit Fraser
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Runtime: 103 mins
Farming is available on digital on 3rd February and on DVD, Blu-ray on 10th February,