The premise for The Farewell – writer-director Lulu Wang’s Sundance Film Festival breakout success – is one of those that could lend itself to a familial tragedy just as easily as a situational comedy in the vein of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (but with a poignant twist). It’s to the movie’s credit, though, that it deftly avoids being either of those things. Instead, Wang draws inspiration from her real-life grandmother’s illness (her script is “Based on an actual lie”, as its tone-setting opening title card puts it), as well as her own history as someone who moved from China to the U.S. at a very young age, in order to tell a story that defies basic genre labels. Thanks to Wang’s deeply personal direction and Awkwafina’s subtly profound performance, The Farewell offers a touching and truly authentic experience.
Awkwafina stars in The Farewell as Billi, a young Chinese-American woman and wannabe writer who suffers a blow when she’s rejected for a fellowship – something she decides to keep to herself. Turns out, though, Billi isn’t the only one sitting quietly on some big news; as she soon learns from her mother Jian (Diana Lin) and father Haiyan (Tzi Ma), her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) – whom Billi is very close is – has terminal cancer, but her family has decided not to tell her. Instead, they’re going to pretend that Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend of only three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), are getting married, so that everyone can gather together in China and visit Nai Nai one last time before she passes. But can Billi (who joins them against her parents’ wishes) really avoid spilling the beans about a secret that huge?
Part of what makes The Farewell such an rewarding piece of storytelling is that maintains a delicate balancing act between comedy and drama throughout its runtime; in the end, it’s neither the farce nor the tearjerker that it could’ve been, but something more elegant and relatable altogether. Comparisons to My Big Fat Greek Wedding aren’t necessarily unwarranted either, even if The Farewell isn’t actually a rom-com or even a straight comedy. But where Nia Vardalos’ hit used popular tropes as a way of getting at deeper truths about the struggle of coming to terms with one’s heritage and cultural identity when you’ve long had to exist between two worlds, Wang’s script does so by rejecting conventions at every turn and finding ways to quietly subvert them instead. In doing so, it just about always embraces honesty over going for the easy laugh or punch to the gut, and winds up being all the more authentically funny and genuinely moving for it.
Awkwafina’s performance is also essential to the film’s success; rather than portraying the character as a sad clown or an excessively serious version of her comedic persona in other projects, she plays Billi as a real person with a sense of humor, but also one with deeper feelings that only bubble up to the surface every so often (like when she’s banging on the piano). Wang shoots much of The Farewell in wide shots and extended takes that allow the cast’s performances room to breathe and really highlight the difference between Billi and her family, when it comes to the way that they bottle up their feelings or insist on putting Nai Nai’s well-being ahead of their own. The movie finds other ways of showing that Billi always feels like an outsider no matter where she is, too; for example, in the U.S., she’s constantly speaking to Nai Nai in Mandarin over the phone, whereas in China she’s often reminded of her lack of fluency in the language. It’s a smart approach that gently illustrates her experiences as a Chinese-American immigrant without simply hitting audiences over the head.
But as strong as Awkwafina is during the scenes by herself, Billi’s dynamic with her family is equally important to the film’s themes and tonal juggling. She and Shuzhen, for example, have such an easy-going chemistry that one would be forgiven for assuming they’re a granddaughter and grandmother in real-life. The same goes for Lin and Ma as her parents and the way that they’re often at odds with Billi over her American sense of individuality and emotional outlook. Indeed, there’s nary a character who isn’t fascinating to watch as they try and deal with the extremely awkward situation that they’re in (the looks on Han and Mizuhara’s faces throughout everything that happens tell a story on their own). And of course, China is a crucial element of the movie in and of itself, thanks to the way that Wang and her DP Anna Franquesa Solano lovingly photograph everything from the interiors of Nai Nai’s home to the various locations around Changchun that Billi visits on her trip.
Overall, The Farewell is not only a great film, but also the perfect antithesis to the average summer blockbuster in theaters right now. It tells a very personal and culturally specific story, yet also one that offers humor and heartbreak for anyone (which is to say, everyone) who’s ever felt like they were out of place during an extended family gathering for, really, any occasion (even one far less dramatic than the case here). If there’s any justice, Wang film’s will both reach its audience and earn the recognition that it deserves for being one of the best movies to hit theaters in 2019 so far.
The Farewell is now playing in select theaters and will expand to additional markets over the upcoming weeks. It is 98 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.