2019 | rated PG | starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma | written and directed by Lulu Wang | 1 hr 40 mins |
At the risk of sounding a thousand years old, I have no idea who Awkwafina is or where she came from. She seems to be playing “herself” (that is, effortlessly engaging) in The Farewell, a smart and original little family drama plucked – like Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me and Steven Soderberg’s The Informant – from the cinematic radio theater of This American Life. It’s a well-written morality play focusing on one central high-concept theme and batting it back and forth for the course of the running time.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a broke first generation Chinese immigrant living in New York waiting to get into a prestigious art school when she gets the news that her grandmother back in China is dying of terminal cancer. The family, following Chinese tradition, decides not to tell grandma Nai Nai and heads back to visit her under the guise of marrying off Billi’s nephew, but really to say goodbye to the family matriarch. Lulu Wang’s script and direction sets up the central debate, puts Billi on one side and her mother on another and sees them hash it out over whether to tell Nai Nai and let her take care of final business or let the family shoulder the burden for her. Wang makes a convincing case both ways making The Farewell that rare movie designed to send the audience out thinking and debating.
As a story, it does feel a bit inert however. The characters don’t flesh out beyond much beyond their staked claims in the central lie. I enjoyed this movie, but would have really gone for it if it had gone in one of two directions. The first would be to use the lie premise to build out the characters and tease other revelations. Roll that story into another reveal or discovery, into another and another. At an even 100 minutes, Farwell feels somewhat short, which is a huge compliment, and I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with these characters. On that note, it’s also refreshing that the movie doesn’t go for the easy jokes: no quirky grandma jokes or fish out of water jokes or lame parent jokes. Wang’s script swerves around the obvious for realism.
The other direction it could have gone in is pure atmospheric melodrama. While the script and the performances shine, Farwell doesn’t quite come together on an emotional level. With a premise so high concept and thin, I wanted to see Wang really go for the heart-strings. The relationship between Billi and her grandma is adorable, and the movie seems to observe it rather than shape it into the backbone of the film. It’s sweet and authentic, but also somewhat at arm’s length. I also wanted to be immersed in Chinese culture, the food, the streets, the day to day. The film’s best scenes are the family dinners where several people cram around a small round table in Nai Nai’s house or at a restaurant. Elsewhere, the Hong Kong we see is mostly out of passing car windows, raising the question if an American production can even film in the country. I would have loved for this movie to deliver a Lost in Translation-esque travelogue slow-dipped in atmosphere. The Farewell gets very, very close to both but pulls back.
Another interesting conversation The Farewell has concerns immigration, but not the usual Hollywood story where an immigrant comes to America and is abused and mistreated by evil Yankees, but from a perspective of American immigrants by the Chinese who remain in their home country. From the hotel bellhop fascinated by America to Billi’s cousins who grill her mother for sending her children away, the Chinese side of the family has a distorted view of the States that is either fearful or fantastical. Their debate about what constitutes Home, even among the family members who come back from South Korea where the bride hails from, is fresh and eye-opening.
I wanted to really love The Farewell and I liked it. It’s a smart, thought-proving little high concept film centered around a family that feels authentic and not super-quirky in an indie movie way. It doesn’t build in layers as I would have liked nor does it really lean into the emotion of the situation. I can say this though, I would be up for watching Awkwafina play herself again.