After suffering through last year’s wildly self-indulgent, overly serious Disobedience, I was ready to write off any and all “artistic but struggling 30-something adult comes home for the first time in years for a very important funeral and/or family tragedy and has important awakening” films for good. There’s really no end to the list of indies that seek to mine pathos from this played-out plotline, from The Skeleton Twins to Elizabethtown (although I suspect Garden State has taken up poster-child status). So while I’ve been anticipating writer-director Lulu Wang’s family dramedy, The Farewell, since it began generating buzz at Sundance and got picked up by A24, I also felt a bit cautious.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: The Farewell is in extremely capable hands. Wang — coming off her debut feature, 2014’s Posthumous — has penned a deeply personal story that flips the script, and feels as vital and honest rather than contrived or emotionally manipulative. Based on a true story Wang told in 2016 on NPR’s This American Life, The Farewell centers around an early 30-something writer named Billi (Nora Lum, aka rapper/actress Awkwafina, in one of her first serious roles), who was born in China but raised primarily in New York. Despite her physical distance from much of her extended family, Billi maintains a close relationship with her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who she regularly talks with on the phone, and when she finds out Nai Nai is dying of lung cancer, she can’t fathom not traveling to Changchung (where Wang’s family is also from) for one last visit.
Billi also can’t fathom that her family has chosen to lie to Nai Nai: She has no idea her cancer is terminal, and they cook up an elaborate fake wedding to explain their arrival. Navigating the world when you’re being pushed and pulled between two different cultures is a unique experience that’s not often depicted in mainstream cinema, and Wang and her excellent cast do a fantastic job highlighting the internal and external struggles that can result from this tension. Watching the entire extended family sit at the dinner table together for the first time in 25 years would be deeply moving even if Nai Nai wasn’t dying, so it’s not surprising that this gathering invokes mixed emotions (joy over being together, sorrow over all the years they’ve spent apart and all the moments they’ve missed from each others’ lives). Certainly, keeping up the charade — or “good lie,” as the doctor calls it — for Nai Nai’s benefit is going to be difficult for all parties involved.
Wang has assembled a truly top-notch cast to stand in for her family: In fact, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong (Wang’s actual great aunt, playing herself), Diana Lin (Billi’s mother) and Tzi Mai (Billi’s father) are so strong that they threaten to outshine Awkwafina, who is generally good here — especially in scenes with Nai Nai — but not entirely convincing, especially when she’s called upon to deliver a more emotional monologue near the end of the film. Still, The Farewell is propelled by the sharp (and often slyly funny) writing, highly fleshed-out characters, mournful score, and crisp cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano. And in a summer movie landscape filled with big-budget sequels and prequels that are written by a team of writers and then rewritten many times over to satisfy studio notes, it’s impressive to see a vision so personal — and a narrative without a love interest or a big dramatic ending — make so much space for itself without a love interest, a big twist, or too much heavy-handed symbolism.