Rated PG for thematic material, brief language, and some smoking
1 hour 40 minutes
The immensely moving and thoroughly amusing new film The Farewell stars Awkwafina (the professional and rapper name of Nora Lum) as Billi, a struggling writer toiling away in New York City.
While making a laundry run at the home of her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), she learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with only three months remaining.
The decision is made by the family, in accordance with Chinese culture, not to reveal the news to Nai Nai. A hasty marriage proposal by Billi’s cousin Hao (Han Chen) to his new girlfriend ensures that the family can travel to Beijing to say their veiled goodbyes to their spritely matriarch.
The premise would suggest a rather somber affair. But thanks to some intuitive and empathetic direction by Lulu Wang, who based this film on her own real-life story, the tone is mostly light-hearted with notes of bittersweet reflection along the way. Wang finds humor where others might find only sadness and lends a perspective that may indeed help others get through their own hard times. In this way, it reminded me often of the similarly excellent dramedy The Big Sick, which also intelligently balanced the heavy story at its center with plenty of tasteful laughs.
From an early phone conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, in which both trade fibs about where they are and what they’re doing, the film is predicated upon the polite lies that we tell our family to guard them from unpleasant truths.
When it comes to the well-intentioned deception behind the big secret at the center of the story, there’s a sense of dramatic tension that any character could blurt out the news to sweet Nai Nai at any moment. More importantly, there is a poignant subtext about how we can do the wrong thing for the right reasons on behalf of the people that are closest to us. Some may view this movie and object to how the characters handle this situation, but few would question the sentiment behind their decisions.
The performances from the ensemble cast are stellar across the board, but it’s Awkwafina, who popped up last year in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, that stands out as a true revelation. In her first leading role, Awkwafina is remarkably assured and quietly commanding (despite her slumped posture) in an audience surrogate role that potentially could have been flat or one-note.
Shuzhen is also terrific as the blissfully unaware Nai Nai, whose firecracker spirit and quippy banter give the movie a richly humane energy. That she consistently reminded me of my own late grandmother would likely explain why I was moved to tears on two separate occasions during the film.
There are some playful touches from behind the camera that bolster the comedic and dramatic foundation of each scene. The editing work by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman does a fantastic job of giving us enough time to take in each characters’ role in the family while also aiding in some briskly-paced scenes of situational comedy.
Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano gives us some gorgeous foundational shots of the Chinese city Changchun but also treats us to some sumptuous low angles of busy dinner tables that make every meal look like a delectable feast.
The Farewell is one of the year’s best films, a heartfelt tribute to grandparents everywhere and the families that support them.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, adapts the series of children’s horror tales into a story about a young girl who conjures terrifying creatures within her mansion.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, bring the cartoon explorer into live-action for a new adventure in which Dora must save her parents and solve an ancient Inca mystery.
The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss, is a comedy crime film about three housewives out to settle the score with the Irish mafia after their mobster husbands are sent to prison.