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‘Farewell Amor’ Review: Ekwa Msangi’s tale of African immigration is modest and contemplative

Strong performances propel the quiet but engaging moments in this emotional drama.
Credit: IFC Films

Dance can be a most liberating (and cinematic) form of self-expression, as a large swath of 2020’s better films have attested to. In Steve McQueen’s evocative “Lovers Rock,” young Black people groove and jive to the sultry step of their souls. In Levan Akin’s devastating “And Then We Danced,” an aspiring Georgian dancer’s dream of joining the national troupe gives him purpose. In Fernandro Frías’s melancholy “I’m No Longer Here,” a Mexican teenager relies on cumbia to sustain his identity after he’s forced to flee across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’m No Longer Here” is a particularly apt comparison for the subject of this review: “Farewell Amor,” the debut feature of Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi and an expansion on her own 2017 short movie “Farewell Meu Amor.” Msangi’s film is also about an immigrant’s adjustment, one in which a young woman, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), uses dance to maneuver strange new surroundings where schoolmates raise an eyebrow at her style and form reductive generalizations about where she came from. But while “I’m No Longer Here” is laser-focused on the psychology of one protagonist, “Farewell Amor” has wider narrative ambitions. It unfolds through a trio of perspectives – that of Sylvia; her mother, Esther (Zainab Jah); and her father, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who has already been in New York City for 17 years – to tell a modest but poignant story about a family unable to connect with a new home until they reconnect with each other.

The film’s opening shot portends director-screenwriter Msangi’s task: We see darkened figures of the family reuniting and embracing at the airport, their silhouettes slicing the sunlight shining brightly through massive glass walls behind them. On the other side, ostensibly, is a better future than the one they’ve left in war-ridden Angola. But once these faces are brightened, visible and invisible differences etched by nearly two decades of separation begin to show themselves, like wrinkles we never expected to appear. Walter and Esther struggle to locate the spark of love that has kept her loyal in his absence, though he still has one foot sweeping aside the ashes of a recently ended relationship. Sylvia has practically never known her father, so they start off on awkward footing. And despite having endured the hardship of civil war in their home country together, Esther and Sylvia’s bond is also tested in a dynamic that hews closer to divided-family tropes; Esther is a devout Christian who urges her family toward prayer while daughter is preoccupied with a teen’s secular concerns. Walter finds himself warming up to the entrenched faith his wife has discovered in the last 17 years as well.

The performances in “Farewell Amor” emphasize inevitable rifts better than Msangi’s slightly stilted dialogue does. Lawson churns our empathy as Sylvia carefully takes in a home, a school, a hospital, happy to keep to herself instead of causing trouble. So when her mother surprises a platonic chat between Sylvia and the friendly schoolmate who escorts her home, Esther’s laying down the law with “No friends, no activities, no dancing!” feels overbearing for a story otherwise driven by its quieter, contemplative moments. The ultimatum is jarring, but it’s also shaded by the unique structure of Msangi’s screenplay; instead of ping-ponging between perspectives of the family members, she divides her movie into a trio of chapters that invite us to forge deeper into the minds of each—their motivations and their priorities, their encroaching fears and doubts. If that storytelling tactic keeps the proceedings from feeling totally organic in some moments, it also leads to epiphany in others; key moments are revisited in this small web of relationships, and we may find ourselves reacting differently to them based on the emotional insight we’ve gleaned. The slicing-and-dicing of the chronology is perhaps a matter of dramatic convenience for Msangi more often than not, but “Farewell Amor” is undoubtedly stronger for how it aspires to reckon with each character when most iterations of this story would make do with setting them against each other, and letting our loyalties fall neatly into place. Walter, Esther and Sylvia reckon with each other, but they also must reckon with themselves. Hazy uncertainty reverberates across them, and their overly snug New York City apartment strengthens the potency of those tensions.

It’s amid her own reckoning that Sylvia finds herself drawn to dance (although the minimum insight into these characters’ past lives makes it hard to decipher if she’s discovering a new passion or rediscovering one). A fairly standard sublot ensues – she tries for the school team, she’s embarrassed, she strives to redeem herself – and we’re left with the suspicion that “Farewell Amor” doesn’t emphasize how dance represents a lifeline for the character more than merely a hobby. Nonetheless, it provides Mgangi a narrative guidepost for our three characters to arrive at a climactic moment of mutual understanding, and unspoken confirmation: Time may have cut wounds into this family, but time – as the saying goes – can perhaps heal them too.

"Farewell Amor" is not rated. It's available to rent on VOD platforms now. 

Starring: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee

Directed by Ekwa Msangi