The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
A film that refuses to follow any genre conventions of drama or comedy, The Farewell tells the often charming, frequently heartbreaking tale of a family struggling with their aging matriarch’s terminal-cancer diagnosis. As an opening title card (along with the poster) informs us, the story is “based on actual lie,” so it comes as no surprise when this particular family chooses to hide the truth from Nai Nai, mother and aunt to one generation and grandmother and great-aunt to the next. Our surrogate through the dilemma is Chinese-born and American-raised Billi – played by rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) – who cannot reconcile herself to the deceit. But as her mother explains, in China people believe that “it’s not the cancer, but the fear” that kills. Keep the secret, and maybe Nai Nai won’t die; or, at the very least, she’ll go out happy. Maybe, maybe not. Billi is less than convinced.
Writer/director Lulu Wang (Posthumous) follows the gentle misadventures of this vibrant clan as they reunite to pay homage to the woman they love, waxing funny and sad as the mood requires. The cover story that Nai Nai’s two sons devise is a wedding: Billi’s uncle long ago moved to Japan, just as her own father moved to the United States, and now his son (Billi’s cousin) is the chosen sacrificial lamb to the falsehood, his nascent relationship with a girlfriend used to bring everyone back to China. Nai Nai loves having her family with her once more, even if she is no great fan of the Japanese bride (she doesn’t speak Chinese!). But as her health deteriorates, will they be able to keep the truth hidden? And will the various culture clashes – Chinese, American and Japanese – result in harmony or discord?
The cast is first-rate, from Awkwafina – demonstrating an emotional depth heretofore not required in her previous performances – to Tzi Ma (Arrival), Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao (as Nai Nai) and more. Everyone shares a comfortable rapport, making the family dynamic comfortable and utterly believable. There is never a moment when the film feels less than genuine in the relationships it builds. Unfortunately, despite these significant positives, the pace of the script at times falters, Wang wallowing one time too many in well-worn tragic tropes, and forcing the talented Awkwafina into a rictus of despair that turns tragedy into melodrama. Less can be more, even when the emotional stakes are high. I also would have liked greater exploration of the toll the forced wedding takes on the young couple, though perhaps that’s for a sequel, entitled “The Divorce.” For now, the good far outweighs the rest, and The Farewell sends us on our way with a welcome, moving cinematic adieu.