Awkwafina leads an impressive ensemble in a film that’s as hilarious as it is heartfelt
Based on “an actual lie” from writer-director Lulu Wang’s family history, The Farewell follows struggling New York writer Billi as she travels to China with her family for her cousin’s upcoming wedding. Unknown to everyone but her Nai-Nai (Grandmother), the wedding is an elaborate ruse to bring the family together in the wake of Nai-Nai’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Much to Billi’s anger, her family has chosen to “carry the emotional burden” for Nai-Nai by not telling her about her condition. As Billi struggles between telling her Nai-Nai the truth or accepting her role in her family’s scheme, Billi reckons with her own familial and cultural identity. Wang’s film is a succinct and heartfelt examination of one family’s emotional crossroads, featuring a rich ensemble anchored by a surprisingly dynamic and layered performance by rapper-actress Awkwafina.
Billi’s parents initially choose to keep the family’s plan a secret from both Billi and Nai-Nai, fearing Billi’s more Western attitudes of wearing her emotions on her sleeve may give the scheme away. In that same vein, The Farewell resists indulging in scenes of dramatic family outbursts. Instead, Wang navigates the trepidatious emotional territory of her film with a calming sense of introspection, reveling in quieter moments of familial awkwardness or absurdity.
As Billi’s disparate family congregates in Changchun from as far off as America, China, and Japan, it’s clear that each member of the family has their own idea of how best to live their lives. Dinner table tensions flare as Billi’s parents trade light-spirited jabs with siblings about the merits of education abroad; a visit to a Grandfather’s grave becomes chaotic when the family bickers about proper rituals, as well as the ethics of giving a dead man cigarettes for the afterlife. As a writer and director, Wang has an impressive knack for comedic timing and emotional specificity, allowing drama to naturally arise and develop without giving way to histrionics.
In more aside scenes, Billi gauges her relatives for their take on keeping Nai-Nai’s cancer a secret. Is Billi alone in wanting to tell the truth, or is the family keeping less of a unified front than they seem? In these scenes, The Farewell’s ensemble truly shines, one comprised of veteran character actors from both Eastern and Western film and TV. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are the notable standouts as Billi’s parents, who constantly reckon with their roles as both parent and child as well as straddling cultural roles as Chinese and American citizens. Throughout the film Ma and Lin struggle to justify their actions towards Nai-Nai and in how they carry on their familial identity abroad, which exposes an emotional core that both parents have long fought to keep suppressed. Lin in particular has a humbling performance as Billi’s mother, frustrated by and potentially envious of her daughter’s empathetic openness — leading to a classic confrontation of generational and cultural ideals between mother and daughter.
It’s important to note Wang’s maturity in refusing to pass judgment on any of her characters’ words or deeds throughout the film. Instead, Wang imbues each of the family members with the same tension they initially suspected of Billi — all of them feel like they could potentially give up the secret to Nai-Nai. By maintaining a sharp focus on how each character reckons with the same conflict, Wang justifies and deeply humanizes each of her characters, imbuing The Farewell with a vibrant sense of empathetic universality.
Uniting the ensemble are Shuzhen Zhao as Nai-Nai and especially Awkwafina in a true breakout performance as Billi. Wang gives Awkwafina plenty of room to underplay a dramatic moment, while also showcasing the scene-stealing brashness of Awkwafina’s previous roles. As much as Billi confronts her family’s hypocrisy with a much-needed bluntness, she also readily defers to her family’s guidance when Nai-Nai’s well-being comes into question. Awkwafina clues the audience into Billi’s percolating fury and grief, culminating in a beautiful climactic scene when Billi’s emotions are finally allowed to surface, if only for a brief moment. As Nai-Nai, Zhao crafts her matriarch into a beacon of selflessness and love: scenes where she fusses over her children and grandchildren’s health, or haggles with a venue coordinator to get better dishes for the wedding, bely a long life of struggle and pragmatic decision-making in the name of those she loves. There is also a surprising amount of dramatic ambiguity to Zhao, heightening the tension of Wang’s film as the audience tries to determine just how successful her family’s ruse may be.
The questioning of Billi’s cultural identity remains one of The Farewell’s strongest elements, a thematic underpinning that feels as important for Wang to explore as a director as much as Billi does as a protagonist. As Billi wanders the perpetually under-construction streets of Changchun with her family, Awkwafina and Wang turn Billi’s deep-rooted attachment to Nai-Nai into an opportunity to reflect on her attachment to a China that has long since moved on without her. As such, when Billi’s family threatens to do the same to the matriarch who raised them, Billi faces letting go of the one person holding her identity together. But, as The Farewell explores, perhaps one’s identity isn’t rooted in a singular place, person, action, or desire — as Billi’s uncle notes in the film, such thinking is selfish and backward. Instead, The Farewell finds solace in the idea that we’re part of a familial whole that exists long after the people or places that define us are gone.
Billi and the film grow to find comfort in that growing sense of surrender. As Nai-Nai’s elaborate plans for the climactic wedding find their way to fruition, the family realizes that they can’t tell or remember who knows about the lie and who doesn’t. There’s only the joy created by such an event, a joy carefully cultivated by Nai-Nai over her lifetime, one that Billi and the audience carry with them out of the theater as Wang’s film bids its titular goodbyes.