The Farewell and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by Lulu Wang
I really haven’t seen nearly as many small release and indie films as I should have this year which is a shame because Can You Ever Forgive Me, Sorry to Bother You, and Ingrid Goes West certainly aren’t the kind of films that will be playing at my local theater which STILL has Aladdin yet no room for this film. Yes, I had to go out of town once again to see something even marginally outside the mainstream (how does an Awkwafina movie not get on every screen in the world!?) but more often than not the effort has been worth it as there are a lot of great stuff to find outside the blockbuster tent pole films, and not ALL of them have gone to Netflix yet! Does this family drama about a family member dying somehow manage to be the standout film of the summer, or are we doomed for mediocre dreck ON TOP OF such as somber premise? Let’s find out!!
Billi (Awkwafina) is your typical American millennial; in that she’s living in New York, she wants to be a writer, and she is perpetually broke. Oh well! At least she has her parents to support her (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and has maintained a good relationship with her paternal grandmother who she refers to as Nai nai (Zhao Shuzhen) and talks to on a regular basis. One day however, when Billi is home to do her laundry, she finds out that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months left to live. The whole family including relatives in Japan will be going to see her so they can make her goodbyes which is about all Billi could hope for from this tragic situation, BUT WAIT! The family SPECIFICALLY doesn’t want her to go! Why? As it turns out NO ONE IS TELLING NAI NAI SHE’S DYING (her sister played by Lu Hong hid the medical reports) and everyone is pretending that Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) is getting married as an excuse for the trip. Billi being the… I don’t know, emotional and/or Westernized one is liable to spill the beans if she sees her. Billi goes anyway however despite the protests of her parents but she does manage to keep the secret for the time being. However, she’s constantly struggling with whether to tell her while going along with this wedding ruse that starts to spiral out of control; all the while just trying to deal with the fact that she’s going to lose someone so important to her as well and the (at least to her) bewildering actions her family is taking. Will Billi come clean to Nai Nai or is keeping this a secret the more humane approach? Will the family get the closure they need during this trip despite the layers of subterfuge getting in the way? What if Nai Nai has some unfinished business she needs to take care of!? How do they REALLY know what she’s up to on the weekends!?
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this being such a downbeat premise, and I guess I was kind of worried that despite the presence of Awkwafina that there would be almost no happiness to be found in here; just a meditative and serious look at something we all have to deal with. That whole genre of film is just not my cup of tea as I need some sort of levity to counteract the crushing sadness and thankfully this movie FULLY understands that by making this just as much a comedy as it is a drama. It’s not slapstick or full of jokes; it’s just the way the characters interact with each other and the specific way their vulnerabilities shine through that allows the tension to be regularly released throughout the story. See, this is why you should NEVER doubt Awkwafina! I’ve learned my lesson, and I hope you all have as well!
With the central conceit being what it is, it’s worth analyzing the themes at play; so let’s try and figure out what this movie’s goals were and if they managed to reach them. Is it a criticism of how this family (and seemingly Eastern cultures in general) handled this situation? Well I know where I fell on this debate walking into it (we all learned that lying is bad from Aladdin), and I THINK the film lands on telling her what’s going on as the “most right” answer, but there’s more to it than just that. Awkwafina is our point of view character and her emotional arc is the one most clearly presented which is a solid tip off of what the movie wants you to feel; not to mention the framing of certain scenes and the way that certain people behave that put a decidedly sinister spin on the other side of the argument. There’s one scene in particular where one of the people for NOT telling grandma explains their reasoning, but the scene is at night, in a dark room, lit ENTIRELY by a big neon sign outside, AND the characters in this scene are behaving duplicitously; smoking cigarettes when they told everyone that they had quit. That’s probably the most BLATANT example, but throughout the film it feels like we’re skewed towards Awkwafina’s side of the argument. However, that’s not REALLY the point here as even the characters against telling grandma and are therefore somewhat coded as villainous are still given plenty of human moments throughout; some of which are pretty funny which is a surefire way to soften an unlikable character’s image. I guess the point isn’t whether one choice is good or bad, but that… well, there really aren’t any ‘right decisions” here. Deciding what is right and wrong is something better left to the philosphers and action movies starring Dwayne Johnson. We’re all just trying to do our best and a lot of the time we fail to be anything more than blubbering children grasping at straws to find some degree of comfort in a cruel and pointless world. As bleak as that sounds, it’s really not. There’s a lot of humanity in assigning short sightedness and general discomfort rather than outright malice to people’s actions, and even if the movie STILL feels a bit more on Awkwafina’s side than not; it’s not to the point that those against her point of view are outright monsters and I do appreciate the way this movie gets that across. Sure the ideological coda of this movie is to just kind of shrug, but for a story like this I think that’s a perfectly valid position.
Beyond any sort of message it may have, as a film it manages to be pretty darn good. Now this is probably just my lack of cultural exposure, but the one of the things I took away from the film is that it felt like they were… I guess “normalizing” Chinese culture. The film takes a few moments to just show people who aren’t even involved with the plot itself just living their lives and using their phones; all against a backdrop that, aside from the writing on signs, are basically the same as what was already shown to us in the New York scenes at the very beginning of the movie. Where Crazy Rich Asians was a romantic comedy framed more or less like a fantasy, this is very much an indie family drama with a much more grounded aesthetic. At least for me, it created a sense of familiarity in a culture that I am not a part of which goes along well with the NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEIR DOING ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET message of the film. The real strength of the movie though is the performances which are at the very least are perfectly suited for the roles required while others truly stand out. Awkwafina does a fantastic job of carrying the weight of this emotional dilemma on her shoulders and the multitude of emotions that come with it. Sadness, anger, fear, deference, joy, humor, she handles them all with aplomb and delivers her dialogue with all the raw conviction needed whenever things come to a head. I already liked her from movies like Ocean’s 8 and Neighbors 2, but this is the one where she proves herself to be as capable with drama as she is with comedy; much like Will Ferrell after he did Stranger than Fiction, though I hope her career isn’t as up and down as his ended up being. In addition to her the other role that really stood out was Zhao Shuzhen as what has to be THE MOST PERFECT GRANDMA ON FILM EVER!! Seriously, she’s smart, funny, always makes scenes brighter whenever she’s around, and frankly she reminded me alto of my own grandmothers which was another thing that made this film feel so universal to me. The only performances that fell kind of flat for me were Awkwafina’s parents who felt kind of off to me. I’m PRETTY sure that’s intentional as they’re supposed to be kind of unhappy and supremely flawed, but I just didn’t feel much for them when everyone else was doing much more interesting stuff. Her dad’s an ineffectual doormat who hides from his problems (sometimes inside a bottle), and her mom seems to be REALLY bitter about things that we’re not all that privy too so it’s kind of hard to sympathize with her when she’s being particularly nasty about things.
Aside from that, if there is one major issue I had with the movie that brought it down somewhat despite how great everything else was. I found myself getting lost quite a few times in here and I think it’s due to the narrative feeling somewhat meandering. There are A LOT of characters in this movie with their own place in the family and relationships with everyone else, but a lot of them feel rally short changed and fade into the background almost as soon as they show up. Of course this is something you’ll run into when adapting from true family drama (especially when the drama in question was experienced by the writer/director) and the fact that it is a big family is a major component to the narrative, but even basic things about certain characters were kind of lost on me. A character in a dinner scene about halfway through the movie becomes the focal point of it, and it took me WAY too long to figure out that this character had already been introduced earlier in the film! Of course that was the ONLY time I remember seeing her which involved her and her son walking through the front door, and now she’s the central figure in a pretty sizable scene in the movie. I STILL don’t know for sure how she’s related to everyone else in the family! Awkwafina’s aunt maybe, but that’s just me guessing. Even more jarring than that is that this whole family get together is predicated on a fake wedding, and perhaps I just missed it, but I don’t recall them ever explaining who the Japanese fake fiancée was! Is she a friend of the family? Is she the cousin’s ACTUAL girlfriend? Did they just find someone and gave them a couple grand to go on this family vacation with them!? She’s THERE throughout the entire movie but she has very little to do and it ends up being awkward whenever I saw her. I dunno, maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention or this is something about Eastern Cinema that just went over my head, but in the end I Just ended up feeling that the narrative could have been a LITTLE bit tighter.
I’m on the fence about this being a contender for my top films of the year list, but it’s definitely a movie that made me FEEL things other than numbed amusement and appreciation for explosions; something that probably hasn’t happened enough this year. We’ll see how this stacks up once the Oscar bait starts to roll in, but for now I certainly do recommend seeing it while it’s still in theaters. It’s a perfect palate cleanser for the summer tent poles, especially the recent and VERY awesome Hobbs & Shaw, and it’s nice to stretch some of your viewing muscles with something that’s becoming harder and harder to find in films headed for theaters instead of just going straight to a streaming service. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got a lot of heart, and it’s yet another success for Awkwafina who’s certainly not lacking for accolades but will be getting them for this performance. I don’t think she rapped on the soundtrack though which feels like a missed opportunity if you ask me. What, you think she CAN’T make a song about her grandma dying and make it AWESOME!?