Ekwa Msangi's engaging, Sundance-certified indie Farewell Amor hones in on a state of affairs that must be a commonplace among diaspora families, but which has until now gone unfilmed. That's odd, because it's an inherently dramatic situation: a family who reunite as perfect strangers. It's taken 17 years for Angolan cabbie Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) to raise the funds necessary to bring wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and their teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) across to his new home in New York. The reunion in his boxy apartment only points up how out of synch they've grown: the secular Walter sparking concern by bringing wine home and trailing memories of an earlier fling, Esther proving as devout as her name hints. Sylvia, for her part, seems less than keen on the whole arrangement: the Afrobeats pulsing through her earbuds suggest her head's still somewhere else. Still, some residual affection - the loosest of bonds - keeps them together, while Msangi's camera dances tentatively around them. She takes each of their sides individually - first Walter, then Sylvia, then Esther - and watches as, after this rocky restart in the New World, everyone starts to find their feet and move in something closer to harmony.
In doing so, the writer-director demonstrates the kind of good classical practice taught in screenwriting school: three acts and a coda that collectively provide a more rounded portrait of the same small core of scenes. The Rashomon-like structure has a particular potency in this application, in that each of these characters starts out detached from the other two, harboring their own secrets and desires: Walter in photos on his dashboard, Sylvia in instant messages, Esther in her prayers. (The coda is what happens when those cats are forcibly removed from their bags.) Within that careful, considered framework - previously sketched in a 2016 short, Farewell Meu Amor - Msangi sporadically attempts more instinctive gestures. The Walter section is primed with fragment-episodes, cut before we get the full picture; everything here is a little jagged, as the city might present upon first arrival. No wonder Sylvia does herself an injury; no wonder her father emerges as so clueless with regard to his new housemates. As he finds out, so do we; the film gets more conventional as it goes on, heading towards a dance-off that mirrors a domestic crisis. Yet nothing seems forced or contrived: the naturalistic performances describe characters slowly stretching their legs and getting their feet further under an initially unfamiliar table. A neatly composed calling-card for Msangi, a gentle heartwarmer for the rest of us, with a nice cameo from the talismanic Joie Lee (Spike's sister), passing a torch between generations of indie filmmakers as this rough-hewn family's airy neighbour.
Farewell Amor will be available to stream via MUBI from Friday.