Awkwafina broke out big last year as an irresistible scene-stealer, playing back-to-back variations on the same role in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. She brings that trademark insouciant attitude to early scenes of The Farewell, but the skill with which she layers in soulful feeling, sensitivity and a spiritual connection to both the people and places of her character’s roots makes her performance a quiet revelation. She’s the center of an impeccably cast ensemble all drawn with deep personal investment and keen-eyed observation of complex Chinese family dynamics, making writer-director Lulu Wang’s bittersweet, poignant comedy-drama a gentle delight.
Billed up front as “based on an actual lie,” this small-scale but emotionally expansive fictionalized account of Wang’s family experiences should translate across cultural boundaries. It weaves together narrative elements redolent of key Asian screen hits from over the decades — The Wedding Banquet, The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians — and yet feels fresh and original in its specificity to the filmmaker’s intimate world. In her second feature, following 2014’s little-seen, Berlin-set art-world farce Posthumous, Wang shows an assured grasp of tone, a pleasing eye for unforced composition and a persuasive understanding of the immigrant cultural experience, with its sometimes difficult balance of tradition and modernity.
That dichotomy is signaled from the first scene as aspiring writer Billi (Awkwafina) strolls the streets of her neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn, talking on her cell to her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzen), or Nai Nai in Mandarin, back in Changchun, China. Billi left there at age 6 when her parents — acerbic, unemotional mother Jian (Diana Lin) and kind, mildly boozy father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) — emigrated to New York. But her bond with her Nai Nai has remained unbroken.
During that phone chat, the elderly woman is preparing to have a CT scan. When her doting younger sister, known as Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), receives the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, with medics delivering a prognosis of three months or less, she elects to share the grim news with everyone in the immediate family except Nai Nai.
The movie toggles back and forth in the establishing scenes between New York and China, English and Mandarin, establishing a lovely rhythm as Billi reacts with dismay to her parents’ determination to go along with the deception. That sharp difference of opinion will play out over the course of the story as contrasting cultural attitudes toward the value of truth and the cost of its emotional burdens are weighed with crisp thematic economy. Also backing up the lie is the family of Haiyan’s older brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), who settled in Japan.
Everyone converges on Nai Nai’s apartment, reunited back in Changchun for the first time in 25 years, using the pretext of an abruptly announced marriage between Haibin’s son Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). That dim-bulb couple become the object of much good-natured humor, with gormless Hao Hao seeming far from convinced about the big step of matrimony. The actual wedding, arranged with all the trimmings by bossy Nai Nai, who brooks no argument about keeping it small (“We don’t want to look cheap”), is the extended comic centerpiece of the film. It’s surrounded on either side by short, swift scenes that all serve a purpose in terms of deepening our acquaintance of the characters both as individuals and as a group.
While the movie is dotted with memorably funny-sad interludes, it reaches an affecting apex in a beautiful scene that broadens Awkwafina’s range, in which Billi pours out her bottled-up feelings to her mother during the wedding preparations. Her father to some extent has come around to her Westernized way of thinking, but she remains mostly alone in her firm belief that it’s wrong to let Nai Nai continue thinking her cough and shortness of breath are just the after-effects of a cold. Billi’s sadness, and her sudden immersion into a much larger extended family as opposed to her micro-unit of three back in New York, trigger moving insights into the sense of cultural dislocation felt by many immigrants, even a generation later.
Wang first recounted her family’s story as part of an episode of NPR’s This American Life called “In Defense of Ignorance.” She clearly knows and loves every last one of the people onscreen, even at their most intransigent, infusing the movie with infectious tenderness as well as contemplative depth. The comedy ranges from sly verbal wit through borderline broad crowd-pleasing gags, but it’s anchored at every step by the filmmaker’s direct ties to the situation. And its moments of sweet sentimentality are fully earned and heartfelt.
Around the linchpin of Awkwafina’s exquisitely measured performance, the cast offers countless pleasures, none more so than the domineering but unquestionably loving matriarch of Chinese TV veteran Zhao. Nai Nai is a hoot in her insistence on controlling everyone and everything around her, matching Wang’s light touch in a number of great scenes that walk the line between humor and sorrow, such as a family visit to her husband’s grave. As the other key figures in her immediate family, Tzi and Jiang bring distinctive shadings and a strong rapport to her two sons, the latter especially during the father of the groom’s touching, messy wedding speech. Lin excels at showing the good heart behind Jian’s stern, often disapproving demeanor, and Lu, as Nai Nai’s protective younger sister, is like a Chinese Sophia Petrillo.
Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano and production designer Yong Ok Lee fill the widescreen frame with eye-catching visuals that never feel too studied. They deftly contrast the familiar bustling New York street scenes with the imposing modern architecture of Changchun, a constant reminder for Billi that the home of her grandmother, where she spent childhood summers, along with much of its surroundings, have been erased by time.
I found Alex Weston’s score, with its coating of vocalizing on strings, a little kitschy and overpowering, but that’s a minor issue unlikely to impede anyone’s enjoyment. A lovely coda with video of Wang’s actual grandmother seals the deal on a highly engaging charmer of a movie that never puts a foot wrong.
Production companies: Ray Productions, Big Beach, Kindred Spirit, in association with Depth of Field, Seesaw
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang
Director-screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Producers: Danielle Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
Executive producer: Eddie Rubin
Director of photography: Anna Franquesa Solano
Production designer: Yong Ok Lee
Costume designer: Athena Wang
Music: Alex Weston
Editors: Michael Taylor, Matthew Friedman
Casting: Leslie Woo, Anne Kang
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: UTA, Endeavor Content