Farewell Amor, the debut feature from writer-director Ekwa Msangi, begins with a homecoming. At the airport, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an Angolan refugee who now makes his living as a cab driver in New York, gingerly greets his wife and teenage daughter. His family has finally made it to the U.S. after waiting 17 years for the proper visas. The trio exchanges awkward hugs. Walter asks his daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), to spin around so he can see how she’s grown. They search each other’s faces, trying to discern how much has changed and what, if anything has remained the same.
There’s no active struggle to assimilate into a predominantly white culture; Walter has lived in the States for nearly two decades, in an apartment within a largely black and West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Instead, the drama unfolds in how they must learn to navigate each other after years spent apart. We learn that Sylvia and her mother, Esther (Zainab Jah) spent time in Tanzania, and how the older woman’s search for community led her to adopting religious orthodoxy. Her values clash with those of her daughter, who wears American clothes, flirts with boys and practices her dancing whenever Esther isn’t home. Meanwhile, Walter struggles to move on from a woman he kept a relationship with during his family’s years-long absence; the two broke things off shortly before Esther and Sylvia’s arrival. Now, Walter is left with a wife and daughter he barely knows, and the remnants of a life on his own he’s missing more and more.
An extension of Msangi’s 2016 short Farewell Meu Amor, her feature-length version opens the narrative up by devoting each of its three chapters to a different family member’s perspective. Certain scenes, like the airport reunion or a tense trip to the hospital, get played over and over from another character’s point-of-view; the camera angles change accordingly, with wide shots of sequences from one sequence replayed as close-ups of furtive glances, rumpled clothes, and text messages on a second go-round.
The multiple perspectives also means that no one character is painted as the villain — or the hero. Even Esther, whose devout faith acts as the main obstacle for Walter and Sylvia’s goals during their respective chapters, is awarded more than just a two-dimensional portrayal of a religious fanatic. In her chapter, she befriends one of the family’s next-door neighbors, a New Age hippie type played gloriously by Joie Lee (a.k.a. Spike Lee’s sister, and one of the regular actors in his rep company). When Esther asks to borrow a purse for going to dinner with Walter, her new confidante responds by giving her a much-needed wardrobe change and some words of wisdom. A hackneyed makeover scene this is not — Lee injects the film with warmth every time she’s onscreen, and Jah brings clear-eyed dignity to Esther’s yearning for any sort of community in her new home.
Farewell Amor doesn’t strive for big reveals or blown-out melodrama — its two most dramatic scenes respectively involve an underground dance competition and a couple learning to be intimate with each other after years spent apart. There are no grand statements on how refugees can strive for a better life in America. Instead, we get a tender portrayal of family bonds and collectivity in an uncertain world. At one point, midway through the film, Walter sits Sylvia down after catching her practicing her dance moves in her room. He’s struggled to relate to his daughter at this point, but rather than chastise her, he opens up to her about his own experiences of going night-clubbing while living in America. “When we get to dance, that’s the one place where I can actually be myself,” he says. “Show yourself — you’re the only one who knows what you know.”