Review: ‘The Woman King,’ starring Viola Davis

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “The Woman King.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis and Sheila Atim. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Sisipho Mbopa, Lone Motsomi and Chioma Umeala (Photo by Ilze Kitshoff/TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” (2022)

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1800s in West Africa, the action film “The Woman King” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty.

Culture Clash: General Nanisca leads an all-female group of warriors in the African kingdom of Dahomey, as they battle against the slave trade and the rival Oyo Empire. 

Culture Audience: “The Woman King” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Viola Davis and military action movies that are told from a female perspective.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in “The Woman King” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” is sometimes cluttered and uneven, but the movie’s compelling performances, gripping action and inspiring personal stories can keep most viewers interested. Viola Davis is the movie’s title character and should have been in more scenes. Instead, at least half of the movie is about a rookie military recruit, who starts out as an underestimated newcomer and overcomes challenges, on and off the battlefield. “The Woman King” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, “The Woman King” is inspired by true events that happened in West Africa in the mid-1800s. Davis (who is one of the producers of “The Woman King”) portrays General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey.

These women have a fearsome and bold reputation that is so widespread, when they arrive as visitors in a village, people are afraid look at them. Some of these warrior women’s exploits are exaggerated in stories told among villagers, while other exploits are not exaggerated, including the warriors’ participation in vicious killings. For example, the movie shows how the women specifically train themselves on how to murder people by chopping off their heads.

King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), the reigning leader of Dahomey, is part of the kingdom’s dwindling male population. Dahomey has been in a longtime feud with the Oyo Empire, which is also in West Africa. The on-again-/off-again warfare between Dahomey and Oyo has resulted in Dahomey being forced to give up male residents to Oyo, which has been selling these men in the growing slave trade.

Needless to say, the slave traders (the African traitors and the white male buyers) are the story’s biggest villains. Leading the group of white slave traders is Santo Ferreira (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a Brazilian aristocrat who tries to convince King Ghezo to start profiting from the slave trade by selling slaves directly to Santo and his colleagues. King Ghezo needs the money, and the movie ultimately shows whether or not he makes the decision to sell out his own people. Someone who does sell his own people with no hesitation is Oba Ade (played by Jimmy Odukoya) from the Oya Empire.

Meanwhile, in Dahomey, a 19-year-old woman named Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu) defiantly refuses to marry an older, wealthy man whom her father has chosen for her. This would-be husband immediately shows that he’s abusive when he punches Nawi for not being submissive to him. Nawi defends herself by pushing this abuser down to the ground. He’s shocked that she won’t let him get away with abusing her.

Nawi tells her father that she doesn’t want to have a husband and that she wants to be a soldier. And so, Nawi’s father decides he’s going “punish” her by making her enlist in the toughest military unit around: the Agojie army. Nawi arrives as very physically unprepared and insecure new recruit. She tries to hide her insecurity by acting like she knows more than she really does.

Nanisca gives the responsibility of training Nawi to Nanisca’s right-hand woman Izogie (played by Lashana Lynch), who is as fearless as Nanisca and very loyal to her. Another member of this military unit is Amenza (played by Sheila Atim), who has known Nanisca the longest and is Nanisca’s closest confidante. Amenza is compassionate as well as tough. Lynch and Atim are entirely believable in these supporting roles.

Nawi doesn’t make a good impression on the Agojie leaders because she often acts like an entitled brat. In one of the first conversations that Nawi and Nanisca have with each other, Nanisca comments that Nawi looks a lot younger than 19. Nawi says to Nanisca, “You look like an old woman to me.”

The movie has the expected scenes of inexperienced recruit Nawi making mistakes and failing in some physical challenges during the training process. She’s laughed at and taunted by some of the other trainees, but she doesn’t experience any extreme military hazing. It should come as no surprise that Nawi eventually improves (in her attitude and physical skills) and then excels. Mbedu is quite good in depicting Nawi’s metamorphosis.

Izogie ends up relating to Nawi because they both came from dysfunctional families. Izogie, who knows about Nawi’s abusive father, confides in Nawi one day by saying that Izogie experienced the pain of having an abusive mother. Izogie comments to Nawi about the Agojie warriors: “You have a new family now.”

Meanwhile, Brazilian slave trader Santo has a servant named Malik (played by Jordan Bulger), whose biracial identity often tests his loyalty. (Malik’s mother was an enslaved black woman, and his father was white.) Malik often has to choose between his white employer and the black people with whom Malik identifies with more. Malik and Santo are about the same age, and they grew up together, with Malik always having the role of Santo’s servant.

Malik and Nawi become attracted to each other, but their possible romance is hindered by Nawi’s doubts about how involved Malik is in the slave trade. Malik repeatedly tells Nawi that he’s not a slave trader, but she questions his honesty, considering that he works for a slave trader. To bring some playfull sexiness into the movie, there’s a scene where Nawi takes away Malik’s clothes as a prank when he’s skinny dipping by himself near a waterfall.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this movie called “The Woman King,” not “The Woman Rookie”? One of the frustrating aspects of “The Woman King” is that the Nanisca isn’t in the movie as much as she should be. Nanisca is not exactly sidelined, because Davis is such a powerhouse performer, she makes the most of her screen time, even with her facial expressions. However, a huge part of the story is about Nawi’s personal dramas.

The movie becomes a little bit of a soap opera when something from Nanisca’s past comes back to haunt her. It’s a secret that Nawi finds out about in a way that shakes Nawi to her inner core. Very few people know about this secret. And, at first, Nawi doesn’t quite believe this secret until she sees proof.

“The Woman King” can be commended for showing some of the realistic ups and downs that military groups have with each other and with the governments that they serve. Nanisca has some tension with King Ghezo’s opinionated wife (played by Jayme Lawson), who thinks that Nanisca is too radical. It irritates King Ghezo’s wife when he takes Nanisca’s advice.

The power struggle between Nanisca and King Ghezo’s wife doesn’t become a major showdown though, because the king always treats his spouse as more or less a trophy wife. It’s very obvious from the beginning of the movie that King Ghezo has more respect for Nanisca than his wife, when it comes to leadership skills and camaraderie. Doesn’t the title of this movie say it all?

“The Woman King” has some intense battle scenes and depictions of enslavement that might be too hard to watch for very sensitive viewers. The battle scenes show how even though many of these women might be physically smaller than their male opponents, the female warriors have trained to outwit their opponents with strategic fight moves. The movie also makes a point of how the women pay respect to their fallen comrades using their African religious traditions.

Although “The Woman King” has a well-developed story arc for Nawi, the development of the Nanisca character sometimes fall short of what many viewers might expect. Nanisca gives a little bit of background information about herself, including her secret that affects Nawi. Even with this big secret revealed, Nanisca still remains stoic and somewhat mysterious by the end of the movie.

Viewers never really find out what Nanisca’s interests are outside of this army of female warriors and the army’s duties to protect Dahomey, but that could be the point: Nanisca’s life revolves around this group. It’s testament to Davis’ immense talent that she conveys enough of a personality with Nanisca to show that this extraordinary warrior is not a hollow character but has lived a life of pain and hard-fought survival that she doesn’t easily reveal to others.

TriStar Pictures will release “The Woman King” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘The Batman,’ starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell and John Turturro

February 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zoë Kravitz and Robert Pattinson in “The Batman” (Photo by Jonathan Olley/DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Batman”

Directed by Matt Reeves

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Gotham City, the superhero action flick “The Batman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Vigilante superhero Batman—the secret alter ego of orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne—battles several villains (some more obvious than others) in a race against time to stop psychopath The Riddler, who is intent on destroying Gotham City.

Culture Audience: “The Batman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in superhero movies with a dark and brooding tone that’s similar to director Christopher Nolan’s “Batman/The Dark Knight” movies.

Robert Pattinson in “The Batman” (Photo by Jonathan Olley/DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Richly layered in dark intrigue and life’s shades of gray, “The Batman” takes viewers deeper into Batman/Bruce Wayne’s mind than previous “Batman” films have ever ventured. This top-notch superhero film makes pointed social commentaries about greed, corruption and responsibilities of the wealthy, in addition to delivering plenty of stunning action sequences. The movie’s total running of time of 175 minutes doesn’t make the movie feel too bloated, although at times the filmmakers’ ambitions to make “The Batman” an epic superhero film seem forced into the story a little too much, in order to justify this nearly three-hour movie.

Directed by Matt Reeves, “The Batman” is not an origin story, such as director Christopher Nolan’s 2005 movie “Batman Begins,” which was the first in Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy that continued with 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Reeves co-wrote “The Batman” screenplay with Peter Craig, with the movie based on DC Comics characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

In the beginning of “The Batman,” billionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Robert Pattinson), whose secret alter ego is vigilante superhero Batman, has been fighting crime as this caped crusader for two years, mostly at night. And it’s drained his finances to the point where his trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Andy Serkis) warns Bruce that if Bruce keeps doing what he’s doing as Batman, he’ll have no more money left, and that Bruce is doing a disservice to his family’s legacy. “Alfred, stop,” Bruce says with impatience at Alfred’s worrying lecture. “You’re not my father.” Alfred replies grimly with a hint of sadness, “I’m well aware.”

As Batman fans already know, Bruce lives in the fictional U.S. city of Gotham City (also known as Gotham), which is designed to look a lot like New York City. (“The Batman” was actually filmed in the United Kingdom and Chicago.) In the movie version of the Batman saga, Bruce’s parents—billionaire philanthropists Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne—were gunned down in front of him by an unidentified man when Bruce was 8 years old. The killer has not been caught, and his parents’ murders have haunted Bruce ever since. Thomas (played by Luke Roberts) and Martha (played by Stella Stocker) are seen in brief flashbacks in “The Batman.”

The murders of Bruce’s parents motivated Bruce to become a secret crimefighter as an adult. Finding out who killed his parents is never far from Bruce’s mind. He’s been investigating with the help of Alfred. However, Batman’s other crimefighting duties often get in the way of this investigation. In addition to being a philanthropist, Thomas Wayne was a medical doctor and a politician. He was a mayoral candidate for Gotham when he and his wife were murdered.

Bruce has no superpowers, but his wealth has allowed him to have highly sophisticated and top-level resources, weapons and equipment, including his famous Batsuit and Batmobile. In “The Batman,” Bruce also has special contact lenses, which act as hidden cameras. Gotham police summon Batman for his help, by sending out a lighted signal of distress called the Bat-Signal, which is the Batman logo that can be seen in the sky.

Out of all of the movie incarnations of Batman, “The Batman” has a tone that most closely adheres to Nolan’s “Batman/Dark Knight” trilogy, with some noticeable differences. Compared to all previous “Batman” movies, “The Batman” is much more immersive in the psychology of Bruce Wayne/Batman—so much so, that viewers can hear Bruce’s/Batman’s inner thoughts in voiceovers throughout the movie. It’s a filmmaker choice that might annoy some viewers, but in the context of “The Batman,” it works very well.

The movie’s opening scene takes viewers right into Bruce’s/Batman’s state of mind, as heard in a voiceover that says: “Two years of nights have turned me into a nocturnal animal. I must choose my targets carefully. It’s a big city. They don’t know where I am. The signal that lights up the sky is not just a call. It’s a warning to them. Fear is a tool. They think I’m lying in the shadows, but I am the shadows.”

This version of Batman has a type of inner turmoil and rage that hasn’t been seen in previous “Batman” movies. Batman famously has a personal policy to not kill people unless it’s justifiable self-defense. But in “The Batman,” this caped superhero unleashes some vicious beatings that go beyond what would be necessary to defeat an opponent. There’s a scene in the movie where Batman has to be physically stopped by law enforcement during one of these near-fatal assaults. It’s one of the reasons why Batman is feared and mistrusted by certain people who think he’s an out-of-control vigilante.

Previous “Batman” movies also made it very clear who the heroes and villains are. “The Batman” effectively blurs those lines, as secrets are revealed about several characters’ backgrounds. However, there’s no question that the chief villain of “The Batman” is a mysterious psychopath named The Riddler (played by Paul Dano), whose real name is Edward Nashton. “The Batman” reveals only a few other things about The Riddler’s personal background, since he operates and is seen mostly in the shadows.

However, there’s no doubt about The Riddler’s motives. He leaves notes and clues around Gotham to announce that his murder victims are being targeted because they are corrupt leaders who have betrayed the citizens of Gotham and beyond. The first murder is shown early on in the movie, which opens on Halloween night in Gotham.

This murder takes place 20 years (to the week) after the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The target of this Halloween-night murder is “tough on crime” Mayor Don Mitchell Jr. (played by Rupert Penry-Jones), who is brutally tied up and assaulted in his own home, as he is watching himself in a pre-recorded televised candidate debate for Gotham’s next mayoral election. The incumbent mayor is home alone because his wife (played by Kosha Engler) and son (played by Archie Barnes), who do not have names in the movie, are somewhere else celebrating Halloween.

Is The Riddler acting alone, or does he have any cronies? One of the best aspects of “The Batman” is that the movie plays guessing games about where loyalties lie and whom Batman/Bruce can really trust. Bruce also finds out certain things that make him question his own motives and ethics, as well as how well he thought he knew his parents before they died. Throughout the movie, Bruce/Batman is a trusted ally of James Gordon (played by Jeffrey Wright), a lieutenant of the Gotham City Police Department, who includes Batman in the investigations and at each scene of The Riddler’s crimes.

In previous “Batman” movies, Bruce was an obvious playboy. In “The Batman,” Bruce is still a brooding eligible bachelor, but he isn’t dating anyone. However, when he meets Selina Kyle (played by Zoë Kravitz), also known as Catwoman, there’s a mutual attraction between them that sparks a little bit of romance. (They kiss each other in the movie.) Selina works as a bar server at warehouse-styled nightspot called the Iceberg Lounge, owned by shady and slippery business mogul Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot (played by Colin Farrell), also known as The Penguin.

Selina is an emotionally damaged soul whose Catwoman alter ego is a skilled and clever thief. Selina also “collects” stray cats and takes care of several of these cats in her home. In “The Batman,” Selina and Bruce cross paths because she’s investigating the disappearance of her Russian immigrant roommate Annika Kosolov (played by Hana Hrzic), whom Selina thinks has been kidnapped because Annika knew too much about a powerful man whom Annika was dating. The reasons for Annika’s disappearance (and how they all connect to a larger story) are eventually revealed in “The Batman.”

Even though Selina describes Annika to people as her “friend,” the movie hints that Annika was also Selina’s lover. Before Annika disappeared, Selina is shown comforting a distressed and fearful Annika in their apartment. Annika won’t tell Selina what’s wrong, and Selina keeps calling her “baby” and touching Annika in the way that someone would touch a lover. The movie leaves Selina’s sexuality open to interpretation because it seems the intention is that Selina is the type of person who doesn’t want to put a label on her own sexuality. Whatever the nature of Selina’s relationship is with Annika, it’s a departure from previous movie/TV characterizations of Selina, who is usually depicted as a social outcast who lives alone.

The potential romance between Batman and Catwoman is fraught with trust issues and the taboo of Batman dating someone he knows breaks the law. However, their emotional connection is powerful. Bruce and Selina both know the pain of growing up without parents and having a parent murdered. Selina’s single mother Maria (who is not seen in the movie) was strangled when Selina was 7 years old. Bruce and Selina also have the shared characteristic of having secret identities that are often misunderstood to the point where certain people don’t know if Batman and Catwoman are heroes or villains.

During the course of the movie, these other characters come into the orbit of Bruce/Batman: Carmine Falcone (played by John Turturro), a ruthless mob boss who has The Penguin as his “right-hand man”; Gil Colson (played by Peter Sarsgaard), Gotham’s district attorney who’s at the center of one of the most suspenseful scenes in the movie; Pete Savage (played by Alex Ferns), the Gotham City Police Department commissioner who doesn’t trust Batman as much as Lieutenant Gordon does; Gotham City Police Department chief Mackenzie Bock (played by Con O’Neill), who also has mistrust of Batman; and Bella Reál (played by Jayme Lawson), the young and progressive mayoral candidate who was Don Mitchell Jr.’s opponent in the mayoral race, and she is elected mayor after his death.

During all of this murder and mayhem in Gotham, Bruce finds out that he’s the target of The Riddler because The Riddler thinks that Bruce is corrupt too. Does The Riddler knows Batman’s real identity? The answer to that question is shown in the movie. There’s also some intrigue around the Wayne Foundation Renewal Fund, a charitable venture launched by Bruce’s father and is worth millions.

And in “The Batman,” the Iceberg Lounge has a “club within a club” that’s exactly what you might think it is for a nightclub that attracts a lot of powerful figures involved in criminal activities. The movie has several references to an opioid-like liquid drug called “drops,” because people take the drug through eyedrops, and addicts are called “dropheads.” Years before this story takes place, a crime lord named Salvatore Morrone (who’s never seen in the movie) was a major dealer of drops, and he got busted while Don Mitchell Jr. was mayor of Gotham. This drug bust has had long-lasting repercussions.

“The Batman” offers some biting views on how rich people throwing money at society’s problems doesn’t necessarily erase those problems if systemic inequalities still remain. Catwoman shows she has a side to her that’s about disrupting or challenging society’s institutions that are constructed to keep corrupt, privileged people in power. She’s not really an activist, but more like a social anarchist. And, for the first time in a “Batman” movie, Bruce is really taken to task by certain people for being perceived as a spoiled, wealthy heir who hasn’t really done much to help underprivileged people.

It’s not really “social justice preaching,” but it somewhat shocks Bruce to see that people seem to resent that he appears to have an “ivory tower” mindset while people are suffering around him. And to be fair, this Bruce is such a depressed recluse in “The Batman,” he’s not exactly hobnobbing at charity events as much as Bruce did in previous “Batman” movies. Alfred has to practically beg Bruce to go to a high-society fundraiser, so that Wayne Family charities can continue to operate.

As well-written as “The Batman” screenplay is, it’s hard to go wrong with such a talented group of cast members, who embody their roles as if they were born to play these characters. Pattinson has already demonstrated in plenty of his independent films that he’s got the gravitas and empathy to personify the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Kravitz is all kinetic grace and seductive street smarts as Selina Kyle.

Farrell (who’s unrecognizable underneath exceptional prosthetic makeup) does one of the best supporting-role performances of his career as The Penguin, a menacing and sarcastic thug who isn’t in the movie as much as “The Batman” movie trailers would suggest, but he still makes an undeniable impact. Dano is chilling and unnerving as The Riddler, who’s a combination of a calculating mastermind and a loose cannon. This is not a fun-loving, impish and giggling Riddler, as seen in other “Batman” movies or TV shows. This Riddler is genuinely an infuriated and deeply disturbed villain. The cast members in the other supporting roles do their jobs well in characters that are less complex.

In the 2010s, “The Batman” director Reeves helmed two stellar “Planet of the Apes” movies: 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.” With the “The Batman,” Reeves raises the bar considerably for all other “Batman” films to come. “The Batman” excels in numerous areas of filmmaking to make this superhero movie true visual art. The captivating cinematography (by Greig Fraser) is bathed in hues of black, dark gold and crimson red to bring viewers into a very specific and fascinating world. In addition to the cinematography, the movie’s costume design (led by Jacqueline Durran), production design (led by James Chinlund), musical score (by Michael Giacchino), makeup, sound, visual effects and stunts are all worthy of awards attention.

The musical choices in “The Batman” are particularly effective. For example, Batman’s theme in this movie, which is a nod to composer John Williams’ Darth Vader theme in 1977’s “Star Wars,” is quite possibly the most memorable Batman movie theme to come along in years. It’s a stirring musical signature that evokes the despair and determination that weigh heavily on Batman/Bruce Wayne’s soul. The musical interludes in “The Batman” also include Nirvana’s melancholy song “Something in the Way,” which is woven into the story in such a distinctive manner, viewers will get this song stuck in their heads long after seeing this movie.

But one of the ways that “The Batman” truly stands out from other superhero movies is that it doesn’t necessarily follow the predictable formula of all the villains defeated at the very end. (And “The Batman” has are no mid-credits scenes or end-credits scenes.) The movie takes on some heavy issues, including how society places a stigma on mental illness, and how this stigma has serious repercussions on people’s lives.

“The Batman” also has a few twists and turns that might surprise audiences. (For example, people will be talking about Barry Keoghan’s cameo as a “mystery character” near the end of the movie.) Most of all, “The Batman” accomplishes what many other superhero films don’t: The movie shows the vulnerabilities of a troubled superhero protagonist, who doesn’t have bunch of superhero friends to back him up, and who is at war with himself as much as he is at war against crime.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Batman” on March 4, 2022, with official sneak-preview screenings on March 1 and March 2, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on HBO Max and will be released on digital and VOD on April 18, 2022. HBO will premiere “The Batman” on April 23, 2022. “The Batman” will be released on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD on May 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Farewell Amor,’ starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Farewell Amor”

Directed by Ekwa Msangi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Farewell Amor” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An Angolan immigrant in New York City is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after spending 17 years apart from them.

Culture Audience: “Farewell Amor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories that are rarely told about how family members who haven’t lived together other in several years suddenly have to adjust to living together again.

Jayme Lawson, Zainab Jah and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Can a family be put back together successfully after 17 years apart? That’s the question at the center of the multifaceted and emotional drama “Farewell Amor,” which tells the story from the perspectives of the three main characters: a husband, a wife and their teenage daughter. Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi in a spare but effective style, “Farewell Amor” shows the complications that can ensue when a family’s long-awaited reunion doesn’t necessarily equal instant happiness. It’s an aspect of the immigrant experience that’s rarely depicted in movies that are made in America.

“Farewell Amor” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where Angolan immigrant Walter Santos (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) lives. Walter has been living in the United States for the past 17 years, after fleeing from war-torn Angola. He had to leave behind his wife Esther and baby daughter Sylvia, who both eventually relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Although Walter has kept in touch over the years, he has not been in the same room as his wife and daughter for all those years. He never gave up on trying to bring them to the United States as legal immigrants. The movie has no flashbacks to this part of the family’s life, but the information is revealed in conversations.

The movie begins with Walter, Esther (played by Zainab Jah) and a now 17-year-old Sylvia (played by Jayme Lawson) reuniting at the airport and greeting each other with joyful hugs. But how long will that joy last? The movie creatively shows the perspective of each character in segments, with each segment beginning with the airport reunion.

Walter’s segment is shown first, followed by Sylvia’s and then Esther’s. Some scenes are repeated, but from the point of view of the person whose perspective is depicted. Other scenes are unique to a segment and help fill in some of the blanks. What the viewers get is a richly layered portrait about a family trying to live together again, but not being able to avoid the awkward realities and emotionally fraught impact of how this long separation has changed them individually.

Walter works as a taxi driver, and he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s a mild-mannered man who’s happily made room for his wife and daughter, even though the living space will be cramped with three people living there. When Esther and Sylvia arrive at the apartment for the first time, Walter has thoughtfully prepared dinner for them. Esther is impressed and asks Walter who taught him to cook. Walter makes a vague reply that people can learn to cook with the will to learn and the right resources.

Walter has a secret that he doesn’t tell his wife and daughter when they settle into the apartment: He had a live-in girlfriend named Linda (played by Nana Mensah), a hospital nurse who moved out and broke up with Walter when she found out that Esther and Sylvia were coming back into Walter’s life. It’s later revealed that Linda knew all along about Esther and Sylvia. But because it took so long for their immigration to be approved, Walter moved on with his life, he met Linda, they fell in love, and started a life together.

Linda was living in the apartment long enough to have her mail delivered there. And when Esther sees an envelope of mail with Linda’s name on it, she asks Walter about it. He quickly makes an excuse that it’s mail that’s been delivered to the wrong address. Meanwhile, Walter notices during that first reunion meal with Esther and Sylvia that a strong-willed and outspoken Esther insists on giving a fervent prayer before eating.

Walter asks Esther when she became so religious, and she replies that it was after she and Sylvia moved to Tanzinia and they received refugee help from church members there. Esther isn’t just religious. She’s fanatically religious, to the point where she thinks dancing is sinful and she is against the idea of Sylvia dating, even though Sylvia is old enough to date.

And that’s a problem for Sylvia, who loves to dance. Sylvia can be quiet and introverted, but dancing is her creative outlet where she lets her personality shine the most. At her school in New York City, Sylvia is treated like an immigrant misfit, but she catches the eye of an attractive fellow student named Devin “DJ” Jamison (played by Marcus Scribner), who strikes up a conversation with a shy Sylvia when they’re waiting together at the same bus stop. DJ notices Sylvia practicing some dance moves, and he tells her about a local hip-hop dance contest where the grand prize is $1,000.

Sylvia eagerly enters the contest, even though she knows that her mother will greatly disapprove. By contrast, Walter has no problem with Sylvia being interested in dancing because he likes dancing too. Walter encourages Sylvia to pursue her dance dreams and doesn’t try to stop her when she tells him about the dance contest. Walter is so supportive of Sylvia that he wants to watch Sylvia and cheer her on when she’s in the contest. Sylvia and DJ gradually spend more time together, and their mutual attraction to each other grows.

Esther is very religious, but she’s not a complete prude, since she’s eager to resume her sex life with Walter, and she wants it to be passionate. She tells him during their first night together after being reunited that she hasn’t been with any other man since their separation. Walter doesn’t reply with a similar comment about remaining faithful. The expression on Esther’s face shows that she’s noticed this omitted statement of fidelity from Walter, but she wants to put any thoughts out of her mind that Walter might have been unfaithful, because she wants to get back to being a “normal” husband and wife.

However, their sexual intimacy is awkward, and Walter seems preoccupied with other thoughts. Esther can’t help but notice, and her suspicions deepen about Walter having another woman in his life. Walter sees Linda a few more times during the story, in situations that won’t be described in this review. But it’s enough to say that Sylvia has a chance encounter with Linda, and something happens that makes Sylvia also suspect that Linda was her father’s mistress.

The movie also shows that the breakup with Linda has deeply affected Walter. At a time when he should be happy to be reunited with his family, he’s secretly pining over Linda. He makes an attempt to see if he can still continue his relationship with Linda on the side. There’s a pivotal scene where Linda tells him what her decision is.

Walter is not religious and he’s uncomfortable with how religion has seemed to take over Esther’s life. Esther is so devoted to her church back in Tanzania that she still wants to tithe and send the money back to the church. And that’s a problem, because in New York, Esther hasn’t found a job yet and the family is on a very tight budget. Guess whose money Esther thinks should be tithed now that she and Walter back together?

Meanwhile, Esther meets a friendly neighbor named Nzingha (played by Joie Lee), who lives on the same floor. Nzingha invites Esther to go grocery shopping with her. They begin talking about the neighborhood, and Nzingha seems open to showing Esther around and helping her adjust to life in America. However, when Esther asks Nzingha if she knows if a woman named Linda used to live in the apartment where Walter and the family now live, Nzingha casually avoids answering the question.

Although “Farewell Amor” could have turned into a soap opera, the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being an overly melodramatic film. The movie is at its strongest in authentically showing little things that depict the gradual and sometimes painful realization that this family reunion in America isn’t quite the harmonious fantasy that all three of these family members thought it would be. As disappointment sets in, viewers can see the emotional toll it takes on each family member.

There’s a scene of Sylvia texting with her best friend Neema in Africa, and Neema thinks that Sylvia is living a glamorous life in New York. In reality, Sylvia’s life is anything but glamorous but she’s too embarrassed to admit it. And that’s probably because Sylvia had those same illusions of having an exciting life in America before she moved to America and found out it isn’t always what’s depicted on TV and in movies.

Meanwhile, it’s revealed at one point in the story that Walter and Esther met in college, where he was studying journalism and she was studying social sciences. But in America, Walter is a taxi driver and Esther is unemployed. It’s a depiction of the harsh reality that many immigrants experience in America, where they can’t benefit from the education that they earned in their native countries, usually because of language barriers and/or immigrant discrimination. Walter, Esther and Sylvia all speak very good English, but it’s implied that they’ll have uphill battles in the workforce from employers who might consider an education in Africa as “inferior.”

And even though the family is back together and living in the same household, each perspective of Walter, Sylvia and Esther shows that they are isolated in their own ways from each other. Walter had a secret life that he’s terrified of his wife and daughter discovering. Sylvia, who wants more independence as a teenager, is torn between the strict parent (Esther) who raised her and the more lenient parent Walter) whom she doesn’t really know. Esther’s religious fanaticism has caused a certain level of alienation from her husband and child.

“Farewell Amor” is an impressive feature-film debut from Masangi, who weaves the perspectives of these three different family members together in a very cohesive and compelling way. The movie resolves certain issues a little too quickly, but there’s enough emotional authenticity portrayed by the three main actors to carry the film. The family members in this story are African, but their immigrant experience of fleeing a war-torn country and trying to build a life together after years apart can speak to an untold number of people who’ve been through the same difficulties or feel empathy for those who have.

IFC Films released “Farewell Amor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.

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