This is the period in the cinematic year when studios stop sending us their blockbusters (how they make their money) and get ready to start sending us their Oscar bait (how they feel good about themselves). Both now, and in the spring when the same thing happens in reverse order, can be a feast or famine for a film that the studio doesn’t know exactly how well it could do. Sometimes, a film can find the right audience and become a massive and unlikely hit. More likely, a film can get lost and not find the audience it deserves.
I hope The Farewell finds the audience that it deserves, because it’s one of the best movies of the year.
The Farewell, the second feature film from writer/director Lulu Wang, tells the story of Billi (Awkafina), a struggling Chinese-American writer living in New York but with close ties to her family in Changchun, China. Billi returns to Changchun after learning from her family that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is predicted to only have a few months left to live due to lung cancer. However, Billi is told by her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that the family is choosing to not tell Nai Nai of her illness, and is using the wedding of her cousin as an excuse to get the family together for what is, assumably, the last time they will ever be together.
Sounds like a real breezy feel-good, huh?
There was a moment relatively early in this film when I was worried that this film was going to be a full-force slog, just a lengthy exercise, mourning, and crumbling family dynamics, and I already watch enough shows on HBO that do just that. So, it was such a pleasant relief when The Farewell turned into a careful and delicate look at culture and family, and a look at how we come together for the ones we love, even if they don’t know they need us.
It’s understandable why Wang handles this material with such grace and gentle manner; The Farewell is a story based on her real life and dealing with her grandmother, and was originally a segment for NPR’s This American Life. The film looks at Billi, her family, and Changchun with subtle tones, but that serves the film so well. Wang’s directorial style (and the cinematography of Anna Franquesa Solano) isn’t flashy or showy, but neither is this family and neither is this Chinese city that we’re taken to. Things are presented simply as they are, and we are allowed to marvel at how sweet and wonderful that is.
This is a strength, because it’s so easy to see all the ways that The Farewell could go bad. I could have seen another director and writer playing this film as a big, bold comedy, and that’s the kind of film that Awkafina (who is larger than life in films like Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians) could have easily done and just maybe the kind of film she was expected to do. And that’s what makes her performance an absolute revelation.
The twinkle in Awkafina’s eye that we usually see in her performances (and that we have come to love her for having) is not anywhere in this film. She is somber and crumbling and real. It’s not that she’s ready to explode, it’s almost like she’s threatening to fade away into the ether entirely. It’s the kind of role that is impressive not only on it’s own but also in contrast to her past repertoire. Quiet. Humble. Hopefully worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
As is this film.
This is the kind of film which makes you laugh and cry and think all at the same time. I texted my family when the film ended. While I was in the theater. I needed to share with them what Wang’s film was and how it made me feel.
It’s impressive that a quiet, little fall movie can do this.