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Review: Farewell Amor – “Never has a story about family separation been more timely or relatable”

Jayme Lawson as ‘Sylvia’ in Ekwa Msangi’s FAREWELL AMOR.  Courtesy of IFC Films.  An IFC Films Release.

Seventeen years is a long time.  For Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), it’s literally a lifetime.  But it’s also the length of time her parents Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and Esther (Zainab Jah) have been living apart.  Separated after the Angolan Civil War when Walter departed for America, Sylvia and Esther have finally made to New York City to join him.  On the ride in Walter’s taxi from the airport to the one bedroom apartment they are about to share, they marvel at the city’s busy streets.  However, the three of them, despite being family, are practically strangers after seventeen years apart and bringing the family back together in the face of monumental change is anything but easy.

In writer and director Ekwa Msangi‘s remarkable feature debut, Farewell Amor, she expertly tells the story of this family through the three competing perspectives of its members.  In the beginnings of their reunion, Walter yearns for his recent past where, in his family’s absence, he found new love and built a life for himself.  It’s difficult for him to let go in order to fulfill his familial obligations, despite his own petitioning of the immigration department to get them there.  Esther instead is stuck in the present, one that is very different than what she had envisioned and prayed for while living with her daughter in Tanzania.  She is desperate to find the sense of community she had at the church back in Africa (despite that church taking advantage of her generous “offerings”).  And then, there is Sylvia, who wants to build a future, who wants to feel herself again through music and dance.  She sees this opportunity in America as a chance to thrive, and perhaps to find a sense of self, having been stifled through Esther’s increasingly strict oversight.

The three stories are well crafted by Msangi, and while overlapping in some scenes, are distinctly different in feel and texture.  Walter’s is quietly contemplative, dark, and often lonely.  Sylvia’s chapter, in contrast, is often accompanied by upbeat music that allows her to escape, and to dance, especially as she branches out at her school and becomes more comfortable in her shoes.  Lastly, the story that Esther has to tell is one of isolation with Msangi designing lighting and shots around her in a way that makes the one-bedroom apartment seem even more claustrophobic through her eyes. The three are connected not only by blood but also through dance, a common ground which is loosely woven throughout the narrative.

It’s hard to believe that this is Jayme Lawson’s feature debut performance as she seems so comfortable in front of the camera and in Sylvia’s shoes.  Lawson, a recent Julliard graduate, is to next star in The Batman opposite Robert Pattinson.  Named one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch this year, it’s easy to see why her star is on the rise.  Her work here is particularly nuanced, some might say even award-worthy, but certainly exceeding her experience.  Though she is not the only one who shines.  All three actors here bring much to this character study with Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, best known for Showtime’s The Chi, working through Walter’s complexity to inspire empathy and Zainab Jah giving Esther a tenderness despite her desperation.

There are so many families who have had to overcome immigration obstacles and fight for years to be reunited.  Even more still that might be apart for other reasons – work obligations, military service, incarceration, or more recently, illness. Never has a story about family separation been more timely or relatable to a general audience, and I sincerely hope that means more people find this film.  Farewell Amor is an impressive debut from Ekwa Msangi who brings a welcome and distinctive voice to this personal story, hopefully, one of many tales that she will tell.  She has woven together an intricate narrative of hope, faith, connection, loss and love creating something quite compelling.

Farewell Amor premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.  It comes to theatres and on demand December 11th.

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