There are small, telling differences in the way each of the three long-separated main characters in “Farewell Amor” remembers the day of their reunion. Standing at JFK, awkwardly clutching a bunch of flowers to give to the wife and child he has not seen in 17 years, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine from “The Chi”), a soft-spoken Angolan taxicab driver greets Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), the teenage stranger who is his daughter, and she is surly and unsmiling. Yet from Sylvia’s perspective, she was obliging and affectionate, though later, back in Walter’s cramped one-bed apartment she locks herself in the unfamiliar bathroom and cries. Her mother, Esther (Zainab Jah), notes at dinner how Walter has learned to cook for himself, but does not seem to notice her husband’s bemused alarm when she insists on saying grace, and her blessing carries more than a touch of brimstone. Ekwa Msangi’s insightful, compassionate Sundance competition debut divides its attention equally between the family members, and so provides a heartfelt, three-dimensional portrait of an aspect of the immigrant experience rarely examined: the frictions, recriminations and regrets that happen when the papers finally come through but whole lives have been lived in the interim.
Bruce Francis Cole’s warmly naturalistic, closeup-heavy photography puts us intimately in touch with each character in turn. The first section — Walter’s — is particularly strong, magnetized to Mwine’s exceptional performance as the deeply decent, kind-eyed husband and father, dutifully trying to make a go of the new situation while secretly harboring a broken heart. During the early years of his exile, Walter fell for and then lived with Linda (Nana Mensah), a New York hospital nurse, who, in an ironic twist, was the person who most encouraged him not to give up on his far-off family’s constantly deferred immigration petition. Linda, also noble, has moved out to make way for Esther and Sylvia, but her fragrance still lingers on a set of sheets that Walter hides in a closet: It’s rare to come across such a tender portrayal of a man of Walter’s age and background who is genuinely pining with love.
Walter and Esther refer obliquely to the Angolan civil war that was the original reason for their separation, but mostly they don’t talk about the past. Instead the family members spend most of their days apart, Walter working long hours to make ends meet, Sylvia at school where she strikes up a shy romance with classmate DJ (Marcus Scribner) and Esther at home, praying and worrying alone, at least until she’s befriended by worldly next-door neighbor Nzingha (Joie Lee, terrific in her tiny role). All three principals have their own interior dramas as well as their halting dynamic as a threesome to negotiate, and Msangi elcits equally inhabited, flawless performances from the women, too: first-timer Lawson (who’s next slated to appear in “The Batman”) and Jah, in the trickier, and initially less sympathetic role of the pious Esther.
As considerate as the family members all try to be of each other, the strain of their differing outlooks must come to a head, and a local step contest, in which Sylvia wants to compete despite her mother’s prohibition against dancing, becomes the catalyst. Here, the plotting does flirt with contrivance: The dance showdown inevitably happens on the same day that Esther makes a disturbing discovery; and the reward for winning is $1,000, the exact amount that Esther had saved up, only to wire it to her money-grubbing Tanzanian church — a deed that prompts a rare moment of verbalized anger from her mild but also exhausted and hard-up husband. But at almost every turn, Msangi’s intelligent screenplay veers away from the glib outcome we might expect, to embrace a messier, more ambivalent truth.
Like its steady, decent, unself-pitying characters, “Farewell Amor” is not an angry film and doesn’t seek to lay blame or score political points. But if it’s impossible not to be moved by Walter, Sylvia and Esther’s plights as individuals and as a broken unit trying to mend, then it’s also hard on some level not to indict a system that keeps people apart who want nothing more than to be safe and together. The simple humanism here makes the case for nurturing and celebrating America’s immigrant population in a more eloquent and persuasive way than a more polemical film ever could. Whatever the case, “Farewell Amor” marks the arrival of an exciting new talent in Msangi, with the three lives it details doubtlessly representing only the tip of an iceberg of stories she has yet to tell. The “Farewell” of the title is misleading — not only because the film starts and ends with new beginnings, but because Msangi just got here, and if there’s any justice, she’ll not be going away anytime soon.