By Mary Sollosi
December 12, 2020 at 05:23 PM EST
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Credit: Bruce Francis Cole/Sundance Institute

Farewell Amor begins with a hello: Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an Angolan immigrant living in New York City, greets his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at the airport. After 17 years apart, his family has come to join him in the U.S.

Seventeen years is a long time, though, and none of them are the same as when they parted. Each harbors a private devotion, developed in the intervening years, that belongs only to themselves and threatens the fragile stability of their freshly reunited family. Walter can’t get over his ex-girlfriend, whose mail still comes to his one-bedroom apartment and whose fragrance lingers on a set of sheets he hides in a closet. Esther has become fanatically religious and clings that much harder to her Christianity — sometimes with demonstrations of devoutness that materially hurt her husband and daughter — amid the emotional chaos of displacement.

And then there’s Sylvia, whose great love is dance. Her mother disapproves and the teenager barely knows her father, so her passion lives mostly within the private world of her headphones, shutting out her unfamiliar surroundings with percussive mixes made by her best friend back home. When a new school friend encourages an initially reluctant Sylvia to enter a dance competition, she finally signs up out of quiet desperation to exist outwardly as herself — and finds a point of connection with her father, who has always loved dancing too.

A promising debut feature from Tanzanian American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi, Farewell Amor (which premiered at Sundance in January) shows a deep empathy for all three of its main characters, treating each of their unique immigrant stories with great sensitivity to their singular difficulties. Its gentle, understated tone belies Msangi’s careful attention to rhythm and detail, though the simplicity of the plot, particularly in a few mild contrivances, slightly undermines the story’s authenticity.

Her script is conscious, too, not only of the enormity of this new change in their lives but the context of what they’ve lived through already; Walter and Esther often recall their experiences amid the Angolan Civil War, after which Esther and Sylvia left their home for Tanzania before joining Walter in the States. The trauma of what they’ve lived through colors both of their worldviews — and is somewhat resurrected in their reunion. That’s what their life looked like when they were last together, and when they fell in love, after all.

Msangi’s trio of stars are uniformly great — Mwine with a genuine sparkle in his eyes, not entirely dimmed by weariness and worry; and Lawson capturing, often in the same moment, a teenage mix of terror and bravado. Jah may have the toughest part of all, with Esther being the clearest link between her husband and daughter, but also the hardest to reach. The actress brings great integrity to her earnest portrayal, however, of a woman both fearful of and relieved by where she finds herself. Hers — and all of theirs — is a story of resilience, and of hope. And those are always worth telling. B+ 

Farewell Amor is now available on VOD and in select theaters.

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