Movie Review: An African Immigrant experience — and romance — “Farewell Amor”

There’s a melancholy magic about “Farewell Amor,” a story of Africans come to America, cultures clashing and a family tested by the shock of reunion after a long separation.

Watching Ekwa Msangi’s debut feature, a remake of a short film she did a few years back, we can feel as dislocated as the Angolan trio portrayed here, lost in a strange culture and exotically beautiful Afro-Portuguese music, caught up in a family that’s been tested by civil war and years and years apart, a family that may not survive the jolt of finally reuniting in New York.

They reconnect at JFK where Esther (Zainab Jah) gushes “Amor!” at the husband she hasn’t seen in 17 years. Their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) is more wary, reserved.

And husband Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine)? It’s like he doesn’t know what to do. They’re all but strangers to each other, and he and Sylvia are the only ones who get that.

In three chapters named for those three characters, we see this “adjustment” from each person’s point of view. The first sign of trouble is Esther’s fervent prayer of thanksgiving at their first meal.

“The Devil is shamed and DEFEATED,” she declares. From just the look on Walter’s face, we know this is a new development in the woman he met in college and married shortly after.

Walter, a taxi driver, humors Esther’s passion, attending church with gritted teeth, hearing out her reciting her pastor’s advice in how to “rebuild our family.”

But his passion? There’s something wrong, something beyond “needing time to adjust.” And we can guess what that is more quickly than she can. Her “I haven’t been with another man” isn’t met by his matching declaration of devotion.

We’d wonder if Sylvia has her own suspicions, but she’s too caught up in a new school, homesick texts back home and wondering if she’s got what it takes to crack the step dance team at her Brooklyn high school.

Esther, ardent faith or not, isn’t that slow. She can see mail addressed to somebody else mixed in with theirs. Can she learn anything from their hip, sassy neighbor (Joie Lee)?

The conflicts set up are Walter’s attack of conscience and desire to maintain some connection to “the other woman” (Nana Mensah), Sylvia’s desire to fit in, get away from her pious and controlling mother, overcome the self-consciousness she feels in this new scene and impress the attentive classmate DJ (Marcus Scribner). Esther wants to “rebuild” the family, get them into church so that she will “NOT lose my daughter to this country.”

The script is a passing parade of grace notes, most delivered with a light touch. The father-daughter connection is particularly strained, and Walter is unsure how to remake a bond that was never there. Esther’s not quite blind to what may have been going on while Walter was abroad, but she’s totally deaf to how her religious fundamentalism is rubbing everybody else the wrong way.

Sylvia’s step-dance ambitions is a seriously played-out direction for the story to wander, and Walter’s options don’t seem like options at all.

The cutest scenes pair up Jah, playing fish-out-of-water to New York savvy Nzingha (Lee, Spike’s sister), who brings a little Brooklyn Black Girl magic to their bonding.

“Pleased to meet you, Queen!” sets up instant familiarity. And you just know a New York makeover is coming, because that church-bound African attire — “Is that really what White Jesus wants?”

But no teen dance/mom-makeover tropes break the sad, wistful spell Msangi casts in “Farewell Amor.” There’s dread built right into the title, and the hints of the family’s history make us root for them — and fear for them — first scene to last.

MPA Rating: unrated, sexual situations

Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner and Nana Mensah

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ekwa Msangi. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:41

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