Processing the inevitability of a loved one’s death can often be more difficult than the grief itself and no truth is as evident as this in Lulu Wang‘s exceptional movie The Farewell. Based on a true story and an ‘actual lie’, this film is full of every element that makes a familial drama so engaging: interweaving character studies, sweet, naive grandparents, and plenty of food. As tense as it is inconspicuously funny, this story plays out in the exact environment that one would expect. The warm and inviting atmosphere created in this film comes naturally to all people, also due in part to the familiar and inviting performances from the rising Awkwafina and Nai Nai herself, Shuzhen Zhao. In addition to the phenomenal cast, Wang has truly succeeded in telling such a tender story, flawlessly combining her own experience of the cultural sensitivities of Chinese people with nearly ubiquitous themes about family and loss.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a college graduate who moved to New York from China as a child with her mother Jian (Diana Lin) and father Haiyan (Tzi Ma). Keeping in constant communication with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), Billi wishes that she could spend more time with her in China and gets the chance to when her parents inform her that her grandmother is dying. Although Billi wants to break the news to Nai Nai more than anything, her Chinese family decides to withhold information of Nai Nai’s illness until they believe the time is right. Lulu Wang’s script and direction are paired together very nicely to create the story of this painfully relatable family. The divisive relationships between everyone in this film who are not sure how or when to let Nai Nai know of her condition make for the most interesting dynamics. The family members throughout this film behave in such honest ways that it can often appear as if you are watching your own family reunion play out. Wang’s script does such an exquisite job at squeezing raw emotion out of every shot, as it is also very carefully executed by Anna Franquesa Solano‘s cinematography. It is clear that every aspect of this production is utterly representative of Wang’s story as we get a glimpse into how surprisingly similar families from all around the world can operate.
Awkwafina leads the cast of this family in a very touching and emotional performance. Since her breakout, comedic roles in last year’s Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, her name has become more prominent in cinema. From her role as Billi alone, Awkwafina has truly taken this story to heart and embodied her multi-dimensional character on a personal level that I was honestly not expecting. She has proven herself more than capable of handling a dramatic role and is unafraid to put this raw talent on display. Awkwafina does not entirely steal this film, however, as her strong, shared chemistry with the rest of the cast is undeniable. Particularly Shuzhen Zhao, who really personifies the epitome of grandmothers. Nai Nai’s support for Billi’s artistic endeavors is one of the sweetest aspects that a grandma can have. Even though she might not entirely understand the American lifestyle that Billi carries with her, the way that these two interact with each other is simply real. From the teasing and nicknames to a simple wave goodbye, the caring bond shared between that of multiple generations is fantastic and provides for the most compelling theme throughout this film.
Family, no matter the country of origin, will always be the most loving but often frustrating group that one can be part of. This seems to be a common theme connecting all families and while differences are often unavoidable within families, sometimes you must simply face them. Billi, who is still relatively new with the culture of her Chinese family, brings over her American eccentricities while on her trip which at first make her seem a bit culture-shocked. As this story goes on, however, it is so interesting to see how she adapts to the various traditions that she has not been accustomed to. In a more physical sense, this can be plainly seen in Billi only speaking rusty Chinese to her extended family while being a bit more comfortable conversing in English with her parents. The way that Lulu Wang has blended the contrasting lifestyles of the two different countries to create an understanding and diverse family is amazingly progressive. Wang’s script does not dare to diminish the importance of either country but instead shows how similar they all are. This mild clash of cultures could have easily provided the means for conflict in this plot but Wang decided rather to fuse these two in order to truly show that family is universal.
While The Farewell sells itself as a story of grief, it actually reveals itself to touch on so much more. The immense amounts of empathy that I felt as I watched this film are most likely nothing compared to the plight of Billi throughout the plot, but the fact that Wang made her character’s challenges so relatable is what kept me engaged the most. The Farewell is based on Wang’s grandmother herself and her close, personal relation to this story and culture are what make the tone feel so safe and authentic. She has undoubtedly proven herself able to ‘write what she knows’ while being able to connect her own story to that of all families struggling with the mortality of their elders. Despite a final shot that mildly undercuts this film’s message, there is no denying that this sympathetic story will reach hearts around the world.
The Farewell is easily one of the most emotional and passionately-crafted films of the year so far. No matter what background you may come from, the bond that holds families together are forged by one’s elders. Everyone has a Nai Nai in their life whether they realize it or not and the themes regarding family throughout The Farewell are practically universal. I absolutely adore this story that Wang has decided to share with us, as its fantastic cast and delightful writing could not have been executed in a more honest way.