As hypocritical as it sounds, Awkwafina’s newest venture, The Farewell, was based on a true lie. While the main thread weaved throughout this movie is deception, the sense of authenticity permeating The Farewell is just as prominent.
Watching this film feels like observing a real family go about their lives. Not only is this due to masterful performances from the cast, but the fact that the plot is based on a true story that writer-director Lulu Wang clearly holds close to her heart.
The film tells the story of Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina), a young woman based on Wang herself who is struggling to get by in New York. At the very least, Billi has her family. Even when her parents aren’t on her side, her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China and is affectionately referred to as Nai Nai, is only a phone call away.
At the beginning of the film, everything already seems to be against Billi — she can’t make rent and didn’t get into the writing fellowship she was aiming for. But after a visit with her parents, those struggles become the least of Billi’s concerns. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and only has a few more months to live. While the rest of the family is heading to China to see her for one last time, Billi isn’t invited. As badly as she wants to go, the family disapproves of her coming. If Billi comes, they believe she simply won’t be able to hide the secret they’re all avoiding telling Nai Nai. While the whole family is upset over the diagnosis, Nai Nai is blissfully unaware of it, instead being led to believe everyone is visiting China for a (fake) family wedding.
This is a plot that could lend itself to 90 minutes of melodrama but, instead, The Farewell goes for simplicity and that’s why the film works. This is not a tragic or shocking film about deception; rather, it’s a poignant yet light — often even funny — glimpse into Chinese culture and family. The audience is observing the Wang family go about their reunion as they usually would, with only hints to the underlying plot hidden in the way the family members conduct themselves.
The Farewell is truly a vehicle for Awkwafina’s wide-ranging acting ability. She’s shown her comedic chops many times but we’re introduced to a new side of her in The Farewell. Largely, the beauty of Awkwafina’s performance is seen through subtleties; for instance, her forced, uncomfortable smiles and the sad, lingering looks that follow them.
Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai is commendable as well. The Farewell marks her American film debut — but while her name isn’t known to many viewers, it’s easy to tell she’s been at this for a while. Much like the authenticity of Billi’s character, Nai Nai feels like someone who could fit in with any family, with a number of unforgettable quips to her credit. Her and Awkwafina move naturally together in every scene they share, creating the feeling that they’ve been close for as many years as Nai Nai and Billi have.
The Farewell is visually stunning and fascinating to watch as well, operating as a showcase of Wang’s impressive direction at only her second feature. The camera will focus on the two or three characters highlighted in a particular scene, but many others will be blurred in the background as though carrying on a subplot of their own, serving a visual reminder to how the plot is centered around keeping something well hidden. Camera flourishes speak to the way the characters interact with one another in scenes, whipping around in a circle with excess speed as the group enjoys each other’s company and tops it off with some drinks, or slowly pulls away watching a waving Nai Nai shrink in the distance before panning around to capture a despondent Billi watch her disappear.
For a film with a plot hinged on death, The Farewell feels delicate and soft. Moments in this movie may feel like a punch to the gut, but it’s always quick to pull you back in for a warm hug.