The Farewell is a tender slow burn, not only about a family lie to keep the grandmother’s impending death secret, but about how family reigns supreme in all cultures.
When Billi’s family fakes a cousin’s wedding for an excuse to see Nai Nai (grandmother in Chinese), Billi is frustrated and hesitant to join in on the lie; as evidenced by an opening phone conversation with Nai Nai, Billi, despite the distance in between them, is close with her grandmother and deeply cares for her. So, will Billi tell Nai Nai what the rest of her family won’t? Or will she accept that sometimes ignorance truly is bliss? I won’t spoil the answer, but the film will have you wondering will she find out or won’t she for almost its entirety.
Every comic actor tests more dramatic waters at some point in their respective careers, Adam Sandler with Punch-Drunk Love, Jim Carrey with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show, and Steve Carell’s films have all been buzzkills lately; Awkwafina, known for her comical side-characters in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, puts on a serious face for The Farewell, and I can see where some of the early Oscar love is coming from. I’m not saying she’s a contender, but she does prove it’s within her ability to fluently transition between silly carelessness and earnest contemplativeness (I know, a mouthful). As Billi, she comes off as a pouty millennial, independent yet struggling, raised American but wanting to identify with her cultural heritage simultaneously, and you can recognize Awkwafina incorporating some of her real self into her character at times too. But it is this cultural dissonance, intrapersonal among Billi and dividing her extended family at the dinner table, which sets up what I believe to be the film’s central message: family triumphs no matter the culture, Chinese or American. Despite the differences in perspective of how to handle Nai Nai’s situation, and where their kids should go to school, or what language they’re fluent in, the family acts as one and they collectively love each other and Nai Nai most of all. And what I love most about this film, is that all the actors feel like an actual family. Shuzhen Zhou is excellent as Nai Nai, a great ball of energy in contrast to everyone else’s melancholy.
The film is also beautifully shot, showcasing the understated beauty of China, through all of its nighttime street lights and charming yet beaten down housing. But also noticeable, is how the film depicts New York and Changchun in the same light, that both cities are underneath the same grayish blue skies, symbolizing how the cultures are not as different as they are made out to be, that the importance of family overlaps.
The Farewell, unfortunately, is an example of what I would call the “Coco effect”. Essentially, as a straight white male I struggle to relate to the characters and therefore can’t fall in love with the film. If I were an Asian immigrant, I would’ve probably identified with Billi more and therefore liked the film more. The difference between The Farewell and a standout film such as Roma, both about people of color, is that Roma, despite my racial/cultural differences with the characters, enthralled me; The Farewell did not compel me the same amount. This paragraph is my best attempt to explain why I’m able to recognize the film’s skillful execution, yet not be particularly entertained…I guess.
The Farewell is an A24 film, so high quality is all but ensured, and I’m glad I caught the film, but I can’t imagine it will stick around in my mind for long. 7.5/10