Let’s not tell grandma.
The Farewell is the directorial debut of Lulu Wang, and tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina) who travels to China to see her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), but there is a small twist: Nai Nai is dying and the family has decided to not inform the grandma of her condition. They believe the stress would kill her faster than the disease (lung cancer).
Billi (and her parents) have lived in America for decades, so there is a cultural (as well as generational) divide with the plan. Billi thinks it is dishonest, but the rest of the family believes this is the way to go. We have to wonder if Billi, or one of the other family members, will accidentally spill the beans.
For a first outing, Wang proves adept at being a patient and interesting director. We have several long shots without dialogue where we sit with the characters as they deal with their feelings. Billi is sad, but also seems to be somewhat of a reserved individual, so we see her acting happy (which means Awkwafina had to act like someone who was acting like nothing was wrong). The acting from everyone is quite good, but Nai Nai is the obvious show stealer.
Nai Nai fits the mold of a loving grandmother perfectly. She is spunky, somewhat grumpy, and loving. She wants to support her family in their endeavors, but there are clear divides within the family. The main divide is whether moving to America is the right decision. However, we also have themes of trust, regret, duty, love, and whether everyone should follow the same path. Nai Nai tries to balance them all together, but we can see this family is tense.
The issues appear organically. I imagine most will empathize with a parent ignoring an (adult) child, or a painfully tense family dinner. The multifaceted approach to storytelling works here, and these moments were my favorite part of this movie. Sure, the humor works (mostly), but when we see a real family interacting and bickering, I felt like I was watching my family.
On the ride home, my wife and I agreed The Farewell is one of the best movies of the year. However, I’m not sure if it is the type of film I want to say is one of the best (something that is becoming a theme with the absolute dreck that is cinema in 2019). I liked the movie, and I do recommend it. Yet, it didn’t hit me in a profound way. It is a sweet and fun movie that brings up interesting topics, but something seemed missing.
I think the biggest lack of this film is that we rarely get the interiority of the characters. We can tell how some of them feel when given a little more treatment (the uncle becomes an understandable and interesting figure), but many characters are rarely shown beyond their cheerful mask. The pretense for getting the entire clan together is to have Billi’s cousin marry his girlfriend. The marriage is referred to as fake, but was it? How do the bride and groom feel about this? We get hints, but these characters are never given a voice.
Granted, this is Billi’s story, so not everyone can share the spotlight, but I think we could have had fewer moments of music playing over people looking sad and a bit more dialogue in its place. Even another scene of Nai Nai and Billi having fun together would have helped. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie. Folks looking for a clever dramedy from a new director (who hopefully has another release in the future) will find a lot to enjoy here. Also, this is one of the few original films this year, so even if the plot doesn’t interest you—consider seeing it. Unless you want nothing but franchise crap in 2020.