“She has the It factor,” my friend said of Awkwafina as we left the theater. She’s charismatic and attractive, attractive not simply in her looks but in the sense of attracting attention, being someone you want to watch when she’s on screen. It’s particularly this last that we were trying to pinpoint—this presence Awkwafina has where she feels like a person you want to get to get to know, that you could get to know. The praise of a performance being “real” is probably overextended these days, and kinda means anything from non-stylized to just “playing a character who is messy,” both of which applies to Awkwafina’s performance as Billi. But this thing that isn’t quite contained by “real” is also there in her outsized comedy performance in the glom-com (glam rom-com) Crazy Rich Asians, and her dry turn in the chill heist caper Ocean’s 8, neither being movies that trafficked much in “realism.” It took The Farewell for both of us to get a better sense of whatever innate quality she has, that extra element that can’t quite be taught, and can be so hard to describe. Resonance? Openness? Just likability? Whatever It is, that girl’s got it.
And without Awkwafina’s approachable, graceful handling of Billi, this movie might not have so successfully rendered its tone, which has had me wracking my brain to come up with something better than tragicomedy. There is humor here, jokes and gentle absurdism and the laughter that comes from trying to break tension. But it’s mostly a drama, a meditation on honesty and loss. I keep thinking “This is a movie for adults”, but I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. Certainly not the content—it’s rated PG. But while The Farewell tells a simple story, simple to describe and simple to follow, its treatment is never simplistic. It has nuance. It doesn’t lay out answers for you. It is respectful to its audience, with faith that they’ll meet it at its level. On that last note, this movie offers strong support for the theory of art that it’s actually the works with greater specificity of experience that most affect the widest array of people. This is the story of a Chinese & Chinese American family, and it is rooted in their world, a world quite different from that known by non-Chinese Americans like myself. The majority of the movie takes places in China, and in Mandarin, and proves once again that families are families are families, no matter our language or food or attitudes on end-of-life care.
The friend I saw this with is actually a doctor himself, family practice, and has been in situations where patients have told him that they don’t want to know their diagnosis, that he should tell their family members only, who will make the decisions. But a medical practitioner keeping a diagnosis from a patient without their instruction to do so, to openly lie and tell Nai Nai that her cough is leftover from a case of pneumonia and not the stage four lung cancer she truly has, never would that be allowed here!! You’d be put on immediate suspension and review and almost certainly lose your license. “In American it would be illegal. How do you say ‘illegal’?” Billi asks her dad in the waiting room, and he provides the Chinese word to the rest of the family.
This conflict is the crux of the movie, a family with mixed cultural backgrounds confronting their different ideas on what is the right thing to do for their grandmother. It comes up just in the language barrier sometimes—Billi’s Mandarin isn’t that good, as she well knows, having left for America with her parents when she was only a few years old. But her occasional difficulties are nothing compared to those of the delightfully lost Aiko, Billi’s cousin’s Japanese girlfriend of just three months, who has gamely agreed to get faux married to him as an excuse to bring his family together to secretly say goodbye to their matriarch, and who does not speak a lick of Chinese. While Awkwafina is busy being our protagonist, it’s this awkwardly shuffled along couple who take on the comedy roles. God, their halting karaoke duet at the reception….this time I was crying with *laughter*.
Because gosh, folks, I sure cried! I have lost all my grandmothers at this point, and so much of this hit so close to my heart. And I was also brought to tears by the lovely arc the rest of this family goes through over the course of this 98 minute film. That beautiful shot of them all walking together in slow motion toward the camera, having just successfully scrambled to keep hiding Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her once again, where suddenly you can see this ragtag group of different people bound together as a team, and that this coordination is an act of love, that this act is an act of love, while still something to be very, very, very conflicted over!
Another thing I’m trying to do more in my reviews is be more critical. But honestly, don’t have much to pick over in a film as fine as this. There were a handful of striking shots that I certainly would take more of—the family hurrying along a tree-lined road with their umbrellas shot with a ton of headroom, when they wove through the gravestones after paying respects to their long-passed grandfather, Billi watching her father’s cigarette smoke swirling past her hotel window from the room next door…
Really, this is a wonderful movie. It exists to tell one family’s story (filmmaker Lulu Wang’s own) with grace and feeling. Its goals are simply that, and it feels like a quiet, replenishing breath in between the all big event pictures, franchise spectacles and Oscar tentpoles alike. There’s a place for those too—soon on this very blog!—but right now let’s all just take a breath with The Farewell.