No matter the culture, a family gathering is rarely an insignificant matter. Whether it is to celebrate the beginning of the new year or to honor recent newlyweds, it results in relatives experiencing a major event as one. At its most uplifting, a gathering is a means for loved ones to enjoy each other’s company. At its least uplifting, it leads to distant family members clashing in terms of personalities and worldviews. As it turns out, it is this latter outcome that serves as the groundwork for The Farewell, a film in which a family unites to celebrate the final moments with their grandmother.
But here lies the hook: this particular family is not being honest in terms of why they want to bring people together. In actuality, this family is celebrating their grandmother’s increasingly inevitable passing under the guise of a wedding. What makes this more fascinating is that this conceit comes directly from writer/director Lulu Wang’s own experiences. This is because earlier in life, she and her family also decided to celebrate a grandmother’s eventual passing by means of a fake ceremony.
The Farewell is actually not the first time Wang has released this story to the public. In 2016, she narrated her experiences in an episode of This American Life, complete with a story progression that she later reuses for this movie. With this episode, it is clear that her family’s attempt to cover up the truth is rooted in their belief that truth can hurt on many aspects. Specifically, if you tell someone they are dying, they are more likely to pass because they now have to waste their strength coping with that fact. However, Wang’s upbringing in American values forces her to disagree with this strategy, which creates a big clash of perspectives in the family. As a result, she lays out many of the situation’s emotional stakes in record time.
With that comes the big question: how does this movie justify its own existence when a podcast episode covering the same material is already wonderful as it is? The good news is that Wang is a filmmaker that truly understands how to convey the family’s emotional discomfort in cinematic terms. As a result, we have character reactions that strain whenever required to express big emotions. Given that the family members strive to hide their true feelings, it makes sense that they rarely feel comfortable around each other. Under less assured hands, this could have been achieved with less-than-talented actors. Fortunately, Wang is smarter than that, as she portrays the characters as awkward while still making their emotions organic.
This is most apparent with the protagonist, Billi (Awkwafina), who functions as both an analog to Wang herself and an audience avatar. Much like Wang, this character accepts American values towards bereavement as gospel over those of her own heritage. Although her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), have lived in the United States for several decades, she is the only one who has yet to embrace the traditional Chinese values. If that was not enough, her weak grasp in the language makes it difficult for her to verbalize what she wants to say to her relatives. Combine all that with Billi’s agreement to bottle up her emotions with the other family members, and you have someone out-of-depth in all the right ways.
To bring this further to the forefront, we have Awkwafina in a role that sees her to stretching as a dramatic performer more than ever. In addition to her non-fluency in the Chinese language, it makes sense she plays Billi’s struggles in such a natural way. Better still is her magnetic presence that appears every time Billi pours out her true emotions for what is going on. One particular scene involves Billi angry at the fact her parents never allowed her as a child to say goodbye to an old relative because it would negatively impact her academics. This moment already resonates due to how well Wang sketches out her past so concisely. But with Awkwafina making small facial expressions but large changes in vocals, it becomes even more emotional due to her deliberately paced physical performance.
If expertly conveying discomfort through writing and performance was the best The Farewell had to offer, it would still function as an engaging ensemble piece. However, Wang and cinematographer Anna Solano elevate it thanks to their unconventionally composed shots. In many scenes, they frame the actors in the lower two-thirds of the frame, which introduces a large amount of headroom. At first, this initially seems like a technical error on Solano’s part. But as the movie progresses, it turns out to be an effective way to heighten the stress the characters have as they live through the lie. Besides, how else to put characters in tough spots than to literally push them below their usual spot in any given shot?
It would be easy to assume that Wang would use her storytelling strengths to make this experience far from humorous. And yet in every scene, the dysfunctional family interactions cannot help but be highly amusing. Whether it involves Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), poking fun at how rigid two significant other are near each other or the family staying silent as Nai Nai talks about her supposed physical strength, Wang plays out each moment for their worth. Make no mistake, the movie almost never elicits major laughs. However, it sure maintains simmering comic energy that creates a sense of nuance to what is onscreen.
With the movie making a strong case that familial interactions are more crucial to the central message than individual characters, it is unfortunate that it shifts completely to the latter perspective in the final moments. To its credit, it is admirable how much it does not show certain events. But by showing Billi’s life after the family gathering, it distracts from the grander scale of the narrative in a way that is trite and unsatisfying. To make matters worse, its final image brings in a real-life figure that feels like a cheap ploy to have a traditional happy ending.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to consider the final two minutes of The Farewell as a serious problem. From the even-handed sentimentality to the discomforting shot compositions, the film is a refreshingly honest look into the awkwardness family dynamics can be. By the time it ends, it is hard not to empathize with the whole family as things come to a close. It may not be the most flawless cinematic translation of Lulu’s story. But when it fires on all cylinders, it works as well as any other great comedic drama in recent memory.
The Farewell is now playing in theaters.
The film stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou, Aoi Mizuhara, Han Chen, Hong Lu, Yongbo Jiang, and Jim Liu.