Writer/director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical story centers on a Chinese grandmother with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis – only she is the only person in her family who doesn’t know it. Starring Awkwafina in a dramatic leading role as Billi, the daughter of first-generation immigrants, The Farewell is a universal story that captures the true essence of grief, hope, humor, acceptance, good food and the bedrock of family. (BKP: 5/5)
Review by Vice President and Managing Editor Brigid K. Presecky
Initially featured on public radio’s This American Life, Lulu Wang retells her own story in fictional form through the lens of aspiring artist, Billi (Awkwafina). From the opening scene, we’re introduced to a Millenial New Yorker who has a sweet, solid relationship with her grandmother, Nai Nai (played by the delightfully comedic Zhou Shuzhen) despite their 7,000-mile separation. That’s what makes the devastating news of her terminal lung cancer diagnosis that much more heartbreaking. Told (by family members and doctors) that she is healthy to spare her a painful goodbye, Nai Nai is blissfully unaware of her fate.
The cultural differences (at least from an American perspective) makes viewers question the ethical throughline of the story. Wouldn’t the moral choice be for the family to tell Nai Nai? Billi’s upbringing in the United States is in clear contrast to her relatives, allowing the clash of customs to drive the underlying conflict. Using the guise of a family wedding as a realistic excuse to bring the family together, Billi and her parents travel back to China to say an unsaid goodbye to Nai Nai. A beautiful, tragic use of dramatic irony.
We watch Nai Nai bask in the euphoria of having her children and grandchildren together again, sitting around the family table with lively conversation and even better homemade dumplings. The strong human element of Wang’s story makes you reflect on your own family and what your table would look like if all of your loved ones were together again. Who would be there? What would your grandmother make? (Specific sidebar: Mine would probably have made pork tenderloin with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes – and a graham cracker cake for dessert. I miss the graham cracker cake the most.) The Farewell opens the memory door for you by using a simple, yet profound story of Billi’s (and Wang’s) experience.
Awkwafina’s leading performance is remarkable; With little dialogue, she evokes Billi’s turmoil primarily through her eyes and body language. In addition to the groundbreaking diversity and heartfelt script, Wang’s direction creates a world we want to spend more time in. This film will make you want to call your loved ones, and if they are no longer here physically, it will make you wish they were.
Come awards season, The Farewell will be Lulu Wang’s Oscar to lose.
© Brigid K. Presecky (7/13/19) FF2 Media
Photos: The Farewell
Photo credits: A24 Films / Casi Moss
Q: Does The Farewell pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Most definitely! The Farewell opens in New York July 12 (and in select theaters July 19).