Ekwa Msangi delivers an emotionally engrossing directorial debut.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Austin Film Festival.)
After seventeen years apart, Walter (Ntara Gume Mbaho Mwine) has finally been reunited with his wife Esther (Zainah Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), who have come all the way from Tanzania to live with Walter in New York City. Farewell Amor opens with these three reconvening, their individual personalities intentionally subdued. Through this awkward moment it’s clear that, mentally, this family may as well still be living on different continents.
Following this opening, writer/director Ekwa Msangi begins to peel back on the surface of her three lead characters. In the process, she reveals far more complicated individuals. To do this, she splits Farewell Amor into three sections. The first belongs to Walter, who must learn to let go of his pre-reunion life and return to his role as a father. Next is a segment for Sylvia, who’s looking for ways to use dance as an outlet for her own point-of-view. Finally, there’s Esther, who responds to a lifetime of trauma by immersing herself in Christianity and traditionalism.
Through this unique structure, the distant characters of Farewell Amor come alive. Msangi conveys a sense of engrossing intimacy in how she captures those feelings. This is especially true with the character of Sylvia; like many teenagers, she wants nothing to do with her parents. In Walter and Esther’s segments, she’s like a ghost. She moves quietly in the background without speaking or saying much.
In her own segment, Msangi potently renders Sylvia’s feelings even when she’s saying nothing at all. Take her first day at a new school: as she sits in a waiting room, she nervously looks around at her busy surroundings. Through the tight close-ups and editing, the viewer feels just as trapped here as Sylvia.
But there’s also such empathy from the way Msangi’s filmmaking and Lawson’s physical performance combine. Here, the inner life of the family’s ghost is made flesh entirely through visual means. Later instances of Sylvia finding solace in dancing convey the same idea in a joyful manner.
Msangi’s restrained yet richly human filmmaking extends to the other two members of the family, too. Walter’s storyline, for instance, features a scene where he reunites with an old flame. They share one last dance together before Walter must permanently return to his life as a family man. Mwine’s tender performance and the lighting lends such potent melancholy to their final dance. We don’t need flashbacks to know that what these two had was special.
Msangi uses these intimate scenes to put one into the shoes of the three leads, which proves an immensely immersive experience. Heck, one even understands differing perspectives between family members on a single event, like Sylvia bringing home her classmate DJ so they can share an intimate conversation. Finally, she can be herself around someone without worrying about her parent’s approval.
Through this unique structure, the distant characters of Farewell Amor come alive.
But we later see this same event through the eyes of Esther in her own segment. At this juncture, her internal life has become fully formed so we can understand why she sees Sylvia bringing home DJ as a problem. So much of her new life is out of her hands, including the faithfulness of her husband, another element of her existence slipping out of her control. An event that once made us ache for Sylvia now makes us feel pain for the other person in that equation.
Farewell Amor is a character-first exercise, inviting the audience to occupy the space of three people who couldn’t be more detached from one another. But they’re still a family: Msangi thrives as an artist reinforcing the unique qualities of these family members. Even the various needle drops lend valuable insight into the characters, which are unpacked so thoroughly as to make the whole production emotionally rich.
Farewell Amor begins its story by keeping distance between the viewer and its lead characters. By the time it finishes, you’ll never want to leave them.
Farewell Amor comes to theaters and VOD December 11th.