Big-screen newcomer Awkwafina has had a pretty good run in her first two years. After displaying her scene-stealing lighter side in “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” she now proves her dramatic abilities with a more serious role in “The Farewell.”
She plays Billi, a Chinese-American millennial struggling to get by in New York City. She’s behind in her rent, can’t find the right job opportunity, and resists her parents’ efforts to help. The highlight of her week is a phone call with her grandmother, Nai Nai, in China. Despite being separated by thousands of miles, these two independent women have a strong connection.
That’s what makes it tough when Billi finds out Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few months to live — a fact the family and her doctors have decided to keep from the older woman. They justify the deceit as “a good lie” and plan to not tell her the truth for as long as possible, believing that knowing she has cancer will make Nai Nai’s life worse. Her parents and other relatives are all flying to China to be with her one last time under the guise of a fake wedding party for Billi’s cousin, Haohao, and his fiancee, Aiko.
When Billi’s parents don’t want her to make the trip because she won’t be able to keep the secret, she spends her own money to get there, and that’s where the story really takes off. We see Billi’s close relationship with Nai Nai, a matriarch who never met a matter she doesn’t offer her opinion on or a family event she doesn’t plan. As Billi and her family try to hide their sadness over Nai Nai’s impending death, we see them get together over dinner, revive old internal debates, compare life in China and America, and struggle with how and when to reveal the deception. It’s an emotional roller coaster, from melancholy moments to plenty of naturally funny situations (particularly at the wedding, which includes at least two awkwardly hysterical sequences).
“The Farewell” is based on a similar circumstance from writer/director Lulu Wang’s life. In fact, an opening statement tells us the movie is “based on an actual lie.” The movie was a bit hard for Martha and me to watch, since we’ve both lost our mothers this year, but the tenderness of Wang’s writing and directorial touch kept us involved throughout.
As for Awkwafina, her presence in “The Farewell” will probably bring in a bigger audience than this small, independent movie would have drawn otherwise. It will also likely lead to her getting more roles across both the dramatic and comedic spectrums. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.
Meanwhile, I’m recommending “The Farewell” with an 8 out of 10.
But I must add a caveat: I’m not a big fan of subtitled movies, finding it hard to read the dialogue and pay attention to the visuals (a problem exacerbated by the fact that I wear tri-focal glasses and have to keep moving my head up and down to keep both parts of the screen in focus). The good news is that, while most of “The Farewell” includes dialogue in Chinese, I didn’t find the English translations to be too much of a distraction, and it didn’t impact my enjoyment of Wang’s story.