An essential story about what it means to be an immigrant, The Farewell is an intimate look at restraint amidst a culture clash. It's often funny, also sad, sometimes infuriating and a ton of other things. It's plodding at times, but with its heart in the right place. Writer/director Lulu Wang has certainly upped her game since her 2014 feature debut, Posthumous. The Farewell is "based on an actual lie," but it ain't nothin' but the truth.
Chinese culture apparently dictates deception is acceptable when the victim is dying. That's the double-edged crisis at the heart of The Farewell. Grandma is sick in China. But the family, instead of telling her the truth, plans a wedding to bring everyone together one last time. The well-intentioned ruse doesn't sit well with Billi (Awkwafina), the American grandchild who loves Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) very much.
Billi's parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) almost don't even tell her about the plan, knowing she won't like it. And thus we learn so much about this family in very little screen time. Wang, who lived this ordeal herself, deftly balances all these family dynamics and presents them for us to absorb while the movie pushes onward. There are so many lies in this movie, one on top of the next, it's a moral labyrinth to be pored over and discussed. Wang's themes are timeless and galactic, even if her scope is honed on China.
"A person's life is part of a whole." Argue with that. Some things transcend truth, and Billi struggles with accepting it while coping with the tragic news about Nai Nai. While her family celebrates, she wants to scream, and (as Americans) it's hard for us to blame her. It's especially hard when you see Nai Nai and Billi together. They share a sweet, funny bond that'll break your heart. Zhao Shuzhen is a true scene stealer, witty and energetic amongst her clan, as the revitalized Nai Nai. And Awkwafina, the rapper-turned-actress with the larger-than-life vocal chords, couldn't be more impressive in her first dramatic role. That voice is so magnetic, you never want her to stop talking. She's the kind of actor you gravitate towards — a rare thing.
The Farewell is one of those films that successfully combines all the elements — directing, writing, and performing. It's a movie of chemistry, of family, and it's obvious it was made with love. Wang's voice comes through in her subtle camera choices and watchful frames. And in how she elevates her female characters. She allows the actors to work while she artfully tells their tale. Her tale. And that's what'll move your spirit. The Farewell is modern, despite its ancient sensibilities, and relevant, now more than ever. But it's the relationships you'll remember, and how they may be like your own.