Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is an embrace of a film, the kind of personal narrative that reaches out and seizes your empathy with full force. It’s mighty but gentle, thematically varied but filled with specificity, funny but deeply moving – certainly one of the most varied in its gifts and therefore one of the best. Wang crafts the kind of film you hate to let go of when you leave the theatre, wishing you could stay in the weight of its affections and its grace. As the multiplex continues to fill with cynicism and commodity for fleeting distractions, The Farewell is a film built to actually connect. And does it ever.
Awkwafina heads a flawless ensemble as New Yorker Billi, a young struggling writer with a tight bond to her grandmother, her Nai Nai, played by the soulful Zhao Shuzhen. But Nai Nai is given a stage four lung cancer diagnosis, which the family decides to keep from her to spare her emotional pain. Under the guise of a sudden wedding for one of the grandchildren, the family all reunites at Nai Nai’s home in China to bring joy to her final days. First kept from the proceedings due to her unfiltered emotion, Billi arrives in China and struggles to keep the secret, torn between not only Eastern and Western philosophies of responsibility, but also her former home that looks not as it did in her childhood.
Despite the potential for the maudlin, Wang’s comedic style is relaxed and observational as the family attempts to keep the rouse. Oftentimes the tragic and the hilarious are symbiotic with her patient approach, moving between the film’s dense emotional topography with a natural intuition that doesn’t strain for sentiment or easy laughs. It’s all meticulously assembled into something that feels natural, its family as believable and tangled as one’s own. What reads as a casual air to the film is actually a misdirection, allowing micro observations of behavior or relationship to build into revelations.
But Wang also proves to be a deceptively subtle visual stylist, as well. Personal spaces are given intimate tableaus that make the emotion feel expansive. Crowded spaces alternately zero in on the single faces or isolate them. Here Wang creates a visual dialogue that reflects the human experience of an individual and a member, our capacity to be both our own person and responsible to others. Never is this more impactful than when her frame focuses on Nai Nai, when we’re left to contemplate her head and her heart.
The film is largely spent on Billi and the family privately wrestling with their feelings about Nai Nai’s pending death and how they sublimate her pain to spare her. But how much do they consider the reverse, done in everyday life? When the film asks us to consider the opposite end of the equation for Nai Nai, how she might subsume the grief and struggles of her loved ones in order to build them up, the result is powerful. Wang’s emotional intelligence is matched with incredible subtlety by Zhao Shuzhen’s deeply felt performance, the film’s key to unlocking the back and forth that is familial sacrifice and identity.
Catharsis is ultimately one of The Farewell’s most dominant traits even though it grapples with things that often deny it: divides between generations and national identities, western and eastern thought, selflessness, and of course, death. This is also perhaps one of the greatest feats of Awkwafina’s stellar performance – not just the emotional impact, but the ability to find release by holding in tension things that are difficult to reconcile. Her Billi is trying to figure out the balance, and Awkwafina makes herself malleable to the ensemble and the discoveries within Wang’s screenplay. It’s like a second coming for Awkwafina in as many years, showing herself to be a performer able to shape an emotional arc from a more nebulous journey.
The Farewell is essential contemporary viewing, all the more a vessel for rewarding feeling and reflection because of its undemonstrativeness. With this, Lulu Wang has made a film about what family means to the individual and vice versa, and how ideological shifts in generations shape the overall ongoing narrative of ourselves and our lineage. See it immediately and call your fucking grandmother.