Review: ‘Farewell Amor’ is a finely acted immigrant tale that will make you want to dance
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A silhouetted man stands in a terminal at JFK airport, rocking gently back and forth as travelers pass. He’s nervous, awaiting the arrival of a wife and daughter he has not seen in 17 years, but he’s also moving rhythmically because on the inside he’s likely dancing, the one activity that allows him to be his true self.
This is the opening image of writer-director Ekwa Msangi’s exquisitely observed drama “Farewell Amor,” and Msangi will revisit the scene twice more before we are finished.
The man, Walter, played with quiet authority by breakout star Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, left Angola for the U.S. following the civil war, working double and triple shifts as a New York City cab driver while navigating the immigration bureaucracy that would eventually reunite him with his family.
His wife Esther (Zainab Jah) is assertive and direct, eager to reignite her bond with Walter and establish herself in her new home. Their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), a high school senior, is obedient but wary of her father, whom she has not seen since she was an infant.
Their one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment is small and spare, but homey, and Esther quickly makes her mark by adorning it with Christian keepsakes she has brought from Tanzania, where she and Sylvia had been living. Walter is surprised by the level of her devotion, but does not immediately comment, as he is clearly a man who has learned to choose his words carefully.
Those words include counseling Sylvia on the challenges of being Black in America and carrying oneself in a way that doesn’t make white people feel threatened. It’s at this point that Walter shares what dancing means to him. In these moments, Mwine is magnetic in the type of strong, yet understated performance that often gets overlooked at awards’ time.
Sylvia starts at the local public school and, despite the years apart, demonstrates she is very much like her father, including the propensity to dance, which runs counter to her mother’s religiosity. Combined with the awkwardness of the reunion and a secret that Walter is hiding, these tensions create a rich dramatic backdrop that Msangi capitalizes on by using shifting perspectives to subtly reveal the characters’ inner lives.
Revisiting scenes from different angles recontextualizes the events — often merely through a glance or expression — and the three main actors play off one another like a finely tuned string trio. Mwine and Jah are veterans getting the showcase roles they deserve, while Lawson makes her film debut clearly destined for big things — she’s already been cast in “The Batman” opposite Robert Pattinson.
The depth of feeling this approach delivers cannot be understated. These characters feel real: flawed, human and soulful. It allows Esther the grace of being seen less as a zealot than as someone whose faith has carried her through difficult times but may be making it harder to claim her new life. It grants Walter the opportunity to be a good man trying to do the right thing, even if he sometimes falters. No heroes, no villains, just people.
“Farewell Amor,” which premiered at Sundance in January, is infused with music and awash in the kinds of cultural connections exiles thrive on. Food and its preparation play an important role, and Esther bonds with a neighbor — a joyful Joie Lee as a woman bold enough to offer unsolicited advice and wise enough to know when to dodge a sensitive question — on a trip to a local market.
Though the film is shaped by big topics such as immigration, race, identity and religion, its power lies in its universality achieved through the small human details that tell its story of love and family. Its beauty lies in its empathy — something currently in short supply and therefore very welcome in the stories we consume.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 11 in limited release where theaters are open; also on digital and VOD
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