Awkwafina (née Nora Lum) made a splash last year as the boisterous, straight-talking sidekick to Constance Wu’s Rachel, visiting Singapore to meet her fiancé’s family. Her performance as a say-anything, always-up-for-a-good-time friend with funky style and a brash, lovable attitude made her a breakout star of an already massive movie.
Which makes her dramatic turn in writer/director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell all the more an accomplishment, as the thirty year old proves a talent versatile enough to carry a film that, though it still centers around a large family dynamic, could not be more different from that 2017 blockbuster.
Based on Wang’s own experiences, The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina), a daughter of Chinese immigrants living in New York who is close to her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) back in China; they stay in touch through frequent phone calls, Nai Nai doting on Billi as any grandmother does: are you eating enough? How is work going? Call me more often. From the start, it’s a beautifully constructed relationship, affectionate and clearly quite meaningful to them both. When Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) share that they’ll be returning to China for a relative’s wedding, she’s quick to pick up on the fact that there’s more to the story than what they’re letting on.
Finally, her dad shares that Nai Nai’s been diagnosed with cancer, a fact they won’t be sharing with Nai Nai herself. What’s more, the wedding is being bumped up in order to give the whole family a reason to gather and say their goodbyes. All without telling Nai Nai. Despite her parents’ hesitation, Billi decides she has to make the trip back, too; in the end, Haiyan and Jian swear her to secrecy above all else. It’s a point of cultural pride for the family, that they’ll spare Nai Nai the stress and worry of her diagnosis and instead make the most of what time they have left with her.
This gesture becomes the focal point of Wang’s delightfully lovely family drama, as the action picks up on the other side of the world and we get to meet all of Billi’s extended family in all their endearing eccentricities. The wedding preparations are in full swing, and everyone’s proceeding as if all is right with the world even as Billi struggles with the morality (and emotional toll) of keeping such a huge piece of information from someone you love. Nai Nai’s cramped apartment feels as familiar as your own grandparents’ place, well lived-in and never quite big enough when everyone comes over, but somehow there’s always room at the dinner table. These ensemble scenes let Wang’s craftsmanship shine, as her cast elevates her smart, witty script to something special and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solana finds interesting ways to make it feel like we’re right there in the room.
As concerned with what we share with family as what we don’t, The Farewell makes certain to strike a delicate balance between the two. It’s never in doubt that Billi, Nai Nai and the whole family love each other deeply; separated by generations and oceans, their ties nevertheless run quite deep, and in fact there’s as much love in the things they keep from each other as there is in what they share. When the wedding finally arrives, Nai Nai is as joyful as can be, and even Billi must admit that her glow, surrounded by family and loved ones, is worth the white lie. Eventually, the out-of-towners must return home; films this year will be hard pressed to feature a scene more poignant than Billi’s drawn-out goodbye, thinking as she does that it will be the last time she sees her grandmother. Tears are conjured just recalling it.
It’s easy to get lost in the blockbuster fare hitting theaters nearly every weekend this summer, and some of those big titles might just be worth the cost of the ticket. The Farewell proves a perfect alternative to such exhausting affairs, a film that invites you in like family and shares the love from beginning to end.
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