I had been hearing about Lulu Wang’s buzzy Sundance darling The Farewell for several months by the time I sat down in a theater to watch it. I had heard this film celebrates family in a genuinely universal way, that it breaks more ground for Asian representation in film, and that actress Awkwafina emerges as a real movie star. And yes, this is all true. It truly speaks to a film’s quality where it can be discussed to death and then when you’re finally in a dark movie theater, the movie before your eyes still finds ways to surprise you.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American woman in her 30s living in New York City, not far from her parents. Her father informs her that her Nai Nai (grandmother) has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and does not have long to live. Also, the family has decided not to tell her that she’s terminally ill because they believe this realization will only worsen her quality of life and fast-track her decline. Instead, a wedding is hastily planned as an excuse to get everyone back to China to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) before it’s too late.
Everything that’s been said about Awkwafina in this role is right. She’s a revelation –– a comedic actress who is establishing early on in her career that she is a force to be reckoned with in a dramatic role. Nothing she has done so far in her career suggests this kind of performance. She’s so great in comedic supporting parts in films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, but it’s interesting to note that she was cast in this role before either of those films. She does an outstanding job in big, dramatic moments, but she’s even better in moments with a family member, where all that isn’t being said lingers in the air. This is a dramatic film, but it’s never melodramatic, and it never stops Awkwafina from being funny if the scene calls for it. This is the kind of performance that will undoubtedly be overlooked by the Academy but will send Awkwafina on the right track moving forward. She’s already a lock for an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
However, it’s the ensemble that really makes The Farewell special. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin play Billi’s parents, and both are very good. This is the kind of ensemble movie where, if the camera were to pan out and focus on another family member’s story, you feel like it would be just as complicated as the lead’s. The relationship between the couple getting married (Chen Hun and Aoi Mizuhara) seems like it would be fascinating. This is a couple that has only been dating for a few months, and they’re being pushed into married life by family members with ulterior motives. The awkwardness on their faces tells the whole story, but it would be great to hear more!
Zhao Shuzhen is incredible as Nai Nai. The relationship Billi shares with her grandmother is so vividly painted, and the viewer understands so much about their relationship from the very first scene. What makes the narrative’s central dilemma so compelling is how spirited and commanding of a presence Nai Nai is. She’s a total spitfire. She’s barking orders at the caterers, she’s running around making plans, and this gives Billi a complicated line to walk, of wanting to be present and supportive and in the moment with her beloved grandmother, and also the internal conflict of what it means to keep this kind of a secret from someone you love so much.
Based on a true story from writer/director Lulu Wang’s life, The Farwell is universal enough to transcend cultures and bring the world together, but it’s also authentic enough to speak to something very specific culturally. I had no idea it was custom in certain cultures to not tell the elderly they’re dying, and to dance around that lie for their own benefit, and the ramifications of a lie like that are fascinating. You absolutely do leave the film so thankful for your family. I went to visit my grandmother the next day.
Wang’s script is slightly sentimental in spots, but never melodramatic. Instead of operating on a certain level of maudlin throughout (like a similarly themed American film would), the film plays it straight for a long time, and when we finally get to the tearjerker moments in the third act, they feel earned in a profound way. Wang’s direction and the cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano, are also a lot better than they need to be, and a lot is going on visually in every frame.
Overall, The Farewell is a tiny miracle. It’s sharp, wise, and rewarding. It’s nothing short of remarkable that Wang can walk this tightrope of tone throughout, considering this is only her second feature. It’s heartwarming, but not mawkish and sweet without being saccharine. Every emotional beat, comedic or dramatic, rings remarkably true, and the film tells an incredibly specific and yet universally relatable story that everyone should see. And then call your grandmother when you get home.