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Review: The Farewell – “A film that reinforces that love and importance of family”

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In amongst the summer blockbusters, between the web-slingers, roaring lions and fast cars, are often hidden gems for a hot afternoon escape.  They aren’t always at the top of the box office charts, nor the ones that get the most press, but with recent films such as Booksmart and Late Night there has at least been some counter-programming for those looking for a less ‘explosive’ watch.  With directors Olivia Wilde and Nisha Ganatra bringing these critical successes to the big screen, it’s also been a summer for some refreshingly different perspectives.  Happily, we now also get to add Lulu Wang’s The Farewell to this summer’s offerings and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.  

Based on Wang’s own family experiences, The Farewell’s title frame will tell you that its story is “Based on an actual lie.” Standing in for Wang is Awkwafina who plays Billi, a Chinese-American who left China with her parents at the age of six to live in New York City.  Struggling to make ends meet, but determined to be independent, Billi is stricken by the news that her beloved grandmother (Nai Nai) is terminally ill.  She’s even more startled by the news that her family has no intention of telling Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) of her stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, apparently common Chinese practice.  Her mother (Diana Lin) explains, “It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” 

Worried that Billi is going to tell Nai Nai the secret, her parents discourage her from coming to China to see her grandmother.  But when the family gathers around Nai Nai under the guise of a celebration for a wedding, Billi shows up hoping everyone will come to their senses. Instead, their lie brings the geographically scattered family together over meals, arguments, and shared moments saying goodbye to Nai Nai, who is never the wiser.   

Part of the reason why writer/director Lulu Wang’s film works so well is the authenticity it brings to the screen.  It’s not just that The Farewell is so very rich in culture, or the feel of the family dynamic, it’s Wang’s attention to detail, such as actually filming in her grandmother’s home town of Changchun, that make the film touchingly personal.  Yet the film never feels dragged down by sentimentality, Wang instead concentrating on the family’s complex relationships and emotion with a deft balance of drama and comedy. 

She’s aided in her journey by a simply brilliant performance by evolving breakout Awkwafina.  Her portrayal of Billi proves she can do more than play comedic sidekick in Crazy Rich Asians or Ocean’s 8.  She brings true emotional depth that portrays her character’s tug of war between the largely unfamiliar Eastern traditions of her extended family and the Western ideals ingrained within her.  As she familiarizes herself with her roots and her relatives again she finds a connection in an experience all at once relatable.  Her ability to bring complexity to her role should make her an instant indie film star.

The Farewell highlights so very well the importance of bringing stories to the big screen from all different perspectives and cultures.  It also asks big questions and forces you to even look at your own mortality.  Would you want to know if you were going to die, or would you rather live out your days innocently unaware? They are all deep subjects expertly and delicately explored.  No matter the context in which you view it, The Farewell will stick with you, and if you’re lucky to have grandparents left to connect with, it certainly will make you pick up the phone. It’s a film that reinforces that love and importance of family.  Not bad for a film all based on an actual lie.  

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