Rapper-actress Awkwafina delivers a starring performance that reveals more nuance and emotional depth than anyone could have expected
It’s such a thrill to come out of a movie that you enjoyed and think, “You know, I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”
“The Farewell” is a big-hearted exploration of family, death and culture. It’s seemingly sad premise gives way to one of the most joyful and funny movies of the summer.
With a cheeky opening card that says the story is “based on an actual lie,” writer-director Lulu Wang establishes that she’s going to explore events informed by her own life with a dose of humor.
The central character based on Wang is Billi (Awkwafina), a New York City resident who emigrated from China when she was very young.
Billi is an aspiring writer struggling to afford life in NYC. She remains particularly close with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), despite Nai Nai still residing in China.
Her parents, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, inform Billi that Nai Nai has just received a cancer diagnosis that indicates she doesn’t have long to live… and that they’re keeping this info from Nai Nai.
“Chinese people have saying,” her mother says, “When people get cancer, they die. It's not the cancer that kills them. It's the fear.”
So the family has scheduled an impromptu wedding of one of Billi’s cousins as a way to reunite the extended family, all without Nai Nai knowing that they are there to say their goodbyes.
The bulk of “The Farewell” focuses on the dynamic of this visit, a Chinese grandmother overjoyed to have the family reunited, while the family knows something she doesn’t.
Wang pulls richly from her own experience (which was highlighted on an episode of NPR’s “This American Life”). Movies don’t get much more personal than this.
But it’s up to rapper-actress Awkwafina to bring that emotional impact to the screen in a performance that reveals more nuance and emotional depth than anyone could have expected. It’s a breakthrough role.
Billi’s parents didn’t even want her to go to China, because they knew she would not be able to hide her grief.
As Nai Nai buzzes around, beaming just to be under the same roof as her family, Billi’s eyes are filled with sadness, her smiles a painful strain.
Awkwafina also explores the immigrant experience in Billi, a modern New Yorker who holds a little resentment that she had no choice in the decision to come to America when she was just 3 years old.
But the warmth of family translates across culture, and the laughs and heart are plentiful. Even the ending provides an unexpected burst of joy.
Saying goodbye rarely feels this good. Say hello to “The Farewell.”