[This is a re-post of our review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The Farewell opens today in limited release.]
The richness of a movie like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is in how it shows us the importance of our differences. There may be something comforting in saying that we’re all the same, but by understanding those differences, we gain insight into our cultures, our families, and ourselves. The premise of The Farewell might be confusing to Americans, but for Wang, that confusion is the point. By turning cultural expectations on their head, Wang arrives at a sweet, moving, tender story of family bonds led by excellent performances from Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao.
Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City with her mother and father but keeps in touch with her beloved grandma Nai Nai (Zhao), who lives in China. When Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only three months to live, the family goes to visit Nai Nai and pay their respects under the guise of attending a wedding for Billi’s cousin. The family agrees that Nai Nai is not to be told her diagnosis as it should be the family’s burden to deal with this bad news, not Nai Nai’s. As Billi wrestles with the difficulty of keeping this news a secret from someone she loves, she gains a better understanding of her family’s beliefs and Chinese culture.
I love seeing movies like The Farewell because they provide a look at other cultures and challenge our preconceived notions of how families should behave. Wang is never pedantic in how she presents Billi and her family, instead letting Billi, who was raised in America, serve as an audience surrogate who must understand why her family would continue to lie to someone they love. Honesty is a virtue, so there needs to be an explanation of why hiding the truth is a higher virtue when it comes to a serious medical diagnosis. Wang skillfully pulls this off by balancing scenes of the family interacting with each other while never hiding from the sadness they feel over Nai Nai’s illness.
But the heart of the movie belongs to Billi and Nai Nai. Through Awkwafina’s nuanced, heartfelt performance we get a glimpse of a young woman who feels like she’s not just about to lose a person she loves, but also a connection her past and her homeland. Billi is firmly American, but she can’t ignore her past or what it means to have Chinese heritage. But her relationship with Nai Nai always feels alive and lived-in thanks to Awkwafina’s chemistry with Zhao. You immediately buy them as granddaughter and grandmother, and when Nai Nai calls Billi “stupid child” you know it’s said with nothing but love and affection because of all the warmth emanating from Zhao.
If there’s one complaint I have with the film is that it always has to lean on its original conflict. From start to finish, all the dramatic tension derives from not telling Nai Nai her diagnosis. But Wang cleverly expands this into a film about all the lies families tell each other out of love. Billi doesn’t tell her parents she didn’t get a fellowship because she doesn’t want to disappoint them. Nai Nai’s son buys her fake medicine off the Internet to give the illusion of help. Everything in The Farewell comes back to the lies we tell our family members not out of cruelty or selfishness but out of love.
The Farewell is the kind of smart, sweet, heartwarming movie that I hope people will seek out. It has great performances and a charming tone, but it also feels like it’s letting us take a view at an East/West divide at how families relate to each other. Wang isn’t trying to say that one is better than the other, but that there’s value in the difference, and that while behaviors may differ, the love is unmistakable.