In each of its three parts, Farewell Amor opens with Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) meeting his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at the airport. He’s been in New York for 17 years, having emigrated from Angola after the civil war, and now they are finally joining him.
The film’s segments are named for each of the main characters, looking at how this new arrangement is an adjustment for each of them. Writer/director Ekwa Msangi goes back over certain moments, echoing them from different points of view in each segment, but generally sticks close to the named character in each. While New York is a culture shock (to varying degrees) for Esther and Sylvia, he is adjusted to the place, his life is shaken up by suddenly being an in-person husband and father, and we soon discover that he hasn’t been as patient in waiting for Esther as she has been. A recurring motif of bedsheets saved from the live-in girlfriend who moved out just before Esther arrived is both evidence of his betrayal and a moving token of Walter’s feelings.
Msangi’s screenplay and Mwine and Jah’s performances are excellent at portraying the hesitancy of this reunion. Much has changed in their time apart; the previously fun-loving Esther has become a fundamentalist Christian, and Walter can’t simply switch his feelings for his wife back on. This results in some moments that ring excruciatingly true as they try to find closeness and even intimacy. The most significant moment to come out of Walter’s familiarity with New York is a conversation with Sylvia about being Black in the US, he warns her about how she has to be careful about how she holds herself, how she has to be better, try harder, but the warning also becomes a warm moment as the two bond and Walter relates how the one time he can feel truly free in America is when goes dancing; a love shared by Sylvia.
It’s clear that Msangi sympathises with both Walter and Esther and their respective situations. Esther’s segment, with her stuck in the apartment and haunted by the idea of this other woman, wondering how to reconnect with her husband (as she believes she must to please God) captures her loneliness and alienation well.
Sylvia’s storyline, despite a strong performance from Jayme Lawson (next to be seen in The Batman), is easily the film’s weakest passage. While it’s not badly done, there is little distinctive about the basic dance movie narrative it crams into about 25 minutes or about the confrontations with her mother, who approves of neither her bringing a boy from school home nor her dancing. The wrap up of this, in Esther’s story, is no less standard issue.
Farewell Amor is an empathetic film, depicting a family going through a challenging time and trying to understand it from each of their perspectives. The screenplay gets away from Ekwa Msangi during the film’s middle section, as he can’t find much beyond teen cliché and the basics of the dance movie for Sylvia to do. The rest of the film though feels acutely imagined; a realistic depiction of people trying to find their place together and in what is a hugely changed environment for all of them, carried through by excellent, down to earth performances.