Lulu Wang’s melancholy family comedy sounds aggressively Sundance-y—but it’s one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises.
Bittersweet comedy has become a hallmark of the Sundance Film Festival, most notably with Little Miss Sunshine riding cacophonous festival buzz all the way to a best-picture nomination. As with any fad, the Sundance dramedy gradually grew stale, an oversaturation of cloying, quirky movies made with cynicism. So I was immediately skeptical (talk about cynicism!) when Lulu Wang’s grief-y comedy The Farewellpremiered at this year’s Sundance to raves. Might this be yet another boilerplate festival hit that can’t live up to the hype? When I finally caught the film on a sunny afternoon in the mountains, though, any wariness was near-immediately stripped away. The Farewell is, indeed, the real deal.
Based on Wang’s own experience, The Farewell chronicles a family gathering in Changchun, China, for a wedding really functioning as a secret last visit with the family’s matriarch, who’s been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. The catch is, she doesn’t know that she’s dying; her sister and children and grandchildren have all conspired to keep her in the dark, as is sometimes tradition with terminally ill elderly people in China. Which is both an amusingly high-concept setup for a movie and an achingly sad one, a duality that Wang brilliantly maneuvers. The premise is never played for broad or easy laughs, and The Farewell finds much grace in that precision. Wang movingly tells not just a story about the negotiations of familial love, but also of the immigrant experience, of revisiting one’s homeland to, in some senses, say goodbye to it.
Standing in for Wang is Billi, a frustrated and somewhat aimless aspiring writer in New York, played with weariness and yearning by Awkwafina. This is the rapper-actress’s first lead role—a dramatic one to boot—and she handles it superbly, giving an observant and carefully pitched performance that augurs good things for her big-screen future. In seriously dialing down the freewheeling, caustic shtick she so ably employed in last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians (and elsewhere), Awkwafina accesses the tender and sorrowful energy of the film, proving a perfect guide for the audience through this tricky, booby-trapped reunion.
Though she and her parents emigrated to the United States when she was just five years old, Billi has a strong connection to China in the form of her grandmother, whom she calls Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou). They talk on the phone, and Billi accepts her grandmother’s gentle ribbing and prodding because it comes qualified by support for—and pride in—Billi’s independence. It’s a lovely rapport, one Billi is devastated to soon be losing. So she insists herself into the trip—her parents, fearing she’d give up the game, wanted her to stay home—and in so doing not only gets time with her grandmother, but is able to express, and maybe unearth for the first time, a grief over her displacement. Billi has a great monologue in which she spirals into despair about the gradual fading away of all of her ties to her native country, a mournful panic that says something rather profound about the personal and cultural implications of mortality.
As The Farewell chatters along with the family, Wang fills each frame with life and detail. It’s a lovingly mounted movie, its funny pictures wry but never mocking. Wang takes the time to hover in close on each member of the clan, letting them lay bare their individuality—their own narratives, which have carried them to the present and will continue them on after Nai Nai has died. Wang has cast very well. Shuzhen is almost unbearably lovable as gentle busybody Nai Nai, peppery and kind and vital. You piercingly understand why her death will be such a loss for everyone around her. I also loved Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as Billi’s father and mother, respectively, both deftly flowing along with the contours of the film. Lin has a particularly moving little scene in which her character—who married into the family—talks with Nai Nai’s sister (Lu Hong) about what might come after Nai Nai is gone, how the family will still visit with one another, finding new ways to exist as a unit without its keystone. The Farewell is full of moments like that, small and plain in a way, but also showing a vast depth of feeling passing between the film’s characters.
One slight criticism of the film might be that there’s a repetition of conversation, the family chewing over the value of their deceit again and again. Though to be fair, if I were in a situation like this one, I’d probably ask, “Shouldn’t we just tell her she’s dying?” more than once, too. But for the most part, The Farewell glides with a confident seamlessness, gorgeously scored by Alex Weston and shot by Anna Franquesa Solano.
Be warned about The Farewell: it’s a serious tearjerker. A woman sitting behind me at my screening sobbed nearly the whole run of the movie. I was not quite as stricken, but I definitely darted out of the theater afterward with sunglasses on to hide my puffy eyes. Those tears never felt wrung out with force, though—there’s no manipulation happening in The Farewell. The sentiment in Wang’s film is entirely organic; it’s well-proportioned and arises from credible stakes. The film evokes such blubbery reaction because it so thoroughly invests us in its world, appeals so naturally to our empathy.
This year’s Sundance lineup has been praised for the diversity of its filmmakers, and The Farewell is a shining example of what richness new perspectives undeniably add to festival like this. The go-to cliché when discussing movies about particular people and places is that, in the end, it’s really a universal human story. I’ve always thought that sort of dismissive, that it gives short shrift to specificity. Yes, there are many relatable things conveyed in The Farewell—all its mulling of the onuses and privileges of family, of heritage. But its universality, if you want to call it that, can only be so headily conjured because The Farewell is about exactly what it’s about: this family and their city, their culture, and their complicated bonds. That’s where the film’s beautiful, affecting honesty is sourced: in its million grains of truth, generously offered up. What an honor it is that Wang has invited us in.