It’s only been five months since Awkwafina broke out with her hilarious supporting turn in Crazy Rich Asians, but she is already showing new sides of her persona with The Farewell, director Lulu Wang’s personal and deeply moving new film.
Awkwafina plays Billi, who lives in New York and is told by her mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) that grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has terminal lung cancer. Nai Nai lives in China but Billi keeps in touch with her and, as anyone would be, is devastated to hear the terrible news. Her immediate instinct is to call her grandmother, but her parents tell her she can’t; the entire family has decided they aren’t going to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis and let her enjoy the rest of her life with worrying about her illness.
“…they aren’t going to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis and let her enjoy the rest of her life…”
Billi can’t fathom how they could decide to do that. Nai Nai should know if something is wrong with her, but Billi’s parents and all of her relatives make Billi promise she won’t say anything. The family has devised a plan to have a wedding reception for one of the cousins earlier than expected so every family member can be in China and see Nai Nai for possibly the last time. Billi’s parents are so adamant about not telling Nai Nai; they suggest Billi doesn’t come to China because they don’t trust her emotions.
Naturally, Billi ignores them and heads to China – a trip her terse mother reminds her she probably couldn’t have afforded – to see her grandmother. Nai Nai is so excited to have the whole family together and keeps herself busy planning the wedding reception; she wants no help from anyone and wants to do it all on her own.
The Farewell offers so much more than an average family reunion movie would. While the story is centered around the family dealing with Nai Nai, it also shows how Billi isn’t always comfortable with her family and culture. She seems close to her parents, but her prickly mother never misses a chance to correct her or cast a snide remark in Billi’s direction. When Billi decides she wants to stay in China to be with Nai Nai, her mother’s initial reaction is to remind Billi her Chinese isn’t perfect.
“Awkwafina…in a nuanced performance that promises a wide-ranged career…”
This is such a great moment for Awkwafina to show she is more than the scene-stealer (though, she’s very good at that). She operates in such a range of emotions as Billi, trying to come across as independent and in control, while feeling confused and out-of-place with her family. At the same time, she takes it upon herself to defend Nai Nai’s right to know what is happening to her. Awkwafina plays each of these beautifully, in a nuanced performance that promises a wide-ranged career to come from the actress.
Wang calls upon her own relationship with her grandmother for her directorial debut, which allows The Farewell to be much more moving than you might expect. At times, you will be laughing at the things coming out of Nai Nai’s mouth, and then the movie will turn around and break your heart in the quietest, most humane way possible. The Farewell is wonderfully specific towards the culture depicted, but there’s a universality to its issues regarding family. Just about everyone will be able to take something away from The Farewell.
The Farewell (2019) Directed by Lulu Wang. Written by Lulu Wang. Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin. The Farewell screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
8 out of 10