Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to a ton of buzz. It has taken some time, but the movie is slowly making its way into more theaters across the country and the critical praise has steadily grown. Wang’s intensely personal family dramedy pulls from her own life experiences with her ailing grandmother, a story she first shared on the Chicago-based radio program “The American Life”.
“The Farewell” could be considered one part biographical sketch and one part meditative think piece. Wang (who serves as writer and director) gives us a central character not only dealing with the illness of a loved one, but straddling the pull of two profoundly different cultural points-of-view. Wang does no finger pointing and her film makes no harsh judgments. Instead she sketches, explores and informs through an observant and sincerely human lens.
Awkwafina gives what may be the most eye-opening performance of the year. The edgy comedian/rapper gained a lot of attention for her supporting turn in “Crazy Rich Asians”, a role that essentially restricted her to comic relief. “The Farewell” offers her meatier and considerably more challenging material which the evocative actress absolutely crushes.
Awkwafina plays Billi, a twenty-something New Yorker who has never quite got her footing in the Big Apple. She has lived there since she was 6-years-old after she and her parents (played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) moved to the United States from China. An independent spirit and aspiring writer, she’s a bit down-on-her-luck after being denied a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.
But she receives even worse news, her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and is given only three months to live. Per a common Chinese custom the diagnosis is hidden from her grandmother (affectionately called Nai Nai). Billi doesn’t like the deception but she doesn’t want to stir up trouble with her family. This leaves her in a state of incertitude, struggling to both understand and cope with her grandmother’s condition.
The family concocts a fake wedding for Nai Nai’s grandson and his Japanese girlfriend, but it’s actually just an excuse to bring everyone back to China one last time to say their final goodbyes. Over the next several days Billi joins everyone else in not only hiding the truth from her grandmother but concealing her own heartache.
Wang’s subject matter is heavy but never overbearing. That’s because her movie isn’t strictly about death and grief. Underneath its main story conceit you’ll find several universal themes that hit home regardless of country or culture. But it’s the unexpected playfulness and humor that makes the film feel truly authentic. Wang embraces the peculiarities of family while never pushing it too far. The humor is always at just the right temperature.
Just as essential is Anna Franquesa Solano’s delicate, elegantly framed cinematography and Alex Weston’s supple, melancholy score. They both are impressive on their own, but when working together with Wang’s bittersweet script and a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, we end up with gentle, thoughtful, and profoundly earnest storytelling that often speaks volumes without a word of dialogue.
I mentioned how much I enjoyed the soulful and restrained Awkwafina performance. But I can’t say enough about Zhao Shuzhen. I have read this is her first feature film but you would never know it. She effortlessly fits into her character’s skin, giving an energetic and strikingly authentic portrayal, the kind you would see from a wily screen veteran with 50 movies under her belt. She’s a joy to watch and a true scene-stealer. Hopefully the Academy pays attention come Oscar time.
An opening title card tells us this is a film “Based on an actual lie.” Funny thing is “The Farewell” is one of the truest movies about illness and grief I’ve seen in a while. At the same time it asks a variety of questions about individuality, cultural tradition, and the messiness of family among other things. Lulu Wang shows herself to be a filmmaker to watch, exhibiting a keen management of tone and the sincerest treatment of her characters. These are signatures of a really good filmmaker, and they come with only two movies to her credit. Talk about exciting.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS