“Farewell Amor” powerfully argues that you can never really go home again, especially when that home was never yours to begin with. In Ekwa Msangi’s feature debut, an immigrant family tries to stitch itself together in New York after decades of separation, with the patriarch Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) an Angolan refugee now comfortably settled in America, and his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at his doorstep 17 years later, suddenly adrift in a strange land. Msangi’s drama takes surprisingly structural turns that, even as it lands the movie in feel-good territory that isn’t entirely earned, make for an unexpected and moving slice of immigrant life.
The film begins in JFK airport, as Walter reunites with wife Esther and daughter Sylvia, who’ve made it to the U.S. after long-awaiting their visas in Tanzania. After an awkward reunion where Walter’s now-grown daughter is clearly a stranger to him, he takes them to his cramped one-bedroom New York City apartment, where Sylvia is relegated to the living room. In the years apart, Esther has emerged a pious Christian, following on orders from her pastor to reconnect with her husband in “flesh and spirit.” He’s stunned to find her topless in the bedroom, and his struggle to reconnect with her sexually reveals, through flashback and contemplative aside, that prior to his family’s return, Walter had been maintaining a serious, live-in relationship with a nurse. There’s a cool, melancholy aura to the film as Walter mentally cycles through guilt and lovesickness over throwing his girlfriend out to make room for a family that, honestly, doesn’t resemble much of one anymore.
“Farewell Amor,” in unpredictable fashion, shape-shifts into a triptych. While you may think that perhaps the story you’re getting is exclusively from Walter’s broken-hearted point-of-view, Msangi’s screenplay then pivots to Sylvia, who keeps closely in touch with her friends back in Africa via WhatsApp and text messaging. Her side of the story reveals an unmoored teenager suddenly plopped into a foreign land, but her deft skills as a dancer help bring her closer to her peers. A classmate named DJ (a charming Marcus Scribner) convinces her to enroll in a dance competition, with the prize money set at $1,000, and she begrudgingly agrees.
DJ’s arrival in Sylvia’s life clearly opens the door up to some hope. But their blooming relationship (and these two have an adorably anxious chemistry) rankles Esther, who, after Sylvia brings him home after school, throws him out and forbids her daughter from dance or any other after-school activity. As Sylvia, Jayme Lawson ably conveys the quiet frustration of being scolded by a mother who is, ideologically, on another planet.
The film then opens up to Esther’s side of the story, maddening and tragic in equal magic. When mail belonging to Walter’s ex shows up at the apartment, she’s immediately suspicious, grilling a no-nonsense, New Age-y neighbor Nzingha (Joie Lee), who hardly divulges any information, but helps Esther come to her senses in other ways. Esther also sends Walter into a meltdown when she reveals she’s been squirreling away $1,000 to send back to her church in Africa. That’s money that could’ve gone to rebuilding their lives, as Walter works double and triple shifts to keep their shabby one-bedroom afloat.
The final moments of the film cascade toward a happy ending, or some version adjacent to one, for the family that feels slightly out of place given the tensions always stirring between the three of them. Still, the performances sell it, especially from Lawson, who comes out a real shining star, not just in her obvious dancing abilities, but in how she telegraphs so much with so little. And while Esther seems almost delusional at times, trying to hold a family together with paper clips while entrusting everything to fate and to God, Jah makes her awakening compelling.
The actors’ gifts are all heightened by Msangi’s delicate touch in this empathetic portrait of immigrant life in America that is, refreshingly, less interested in big drama than in a family quietly building itself back up when it may be too late.
“Farewell Amor” is available Friday, December 11 on VOD platforms and digital from IFC Films.