The Farewell (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

The Farewell (2019) is a very engaging film that showcases how talented Awkwafina is, and ushers her into “leading lady” status. Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York with her parents and is just getting by. After her grandmother – who she calls “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao) – is diagnosed with cancer back in China, the clash of East and West becomes apparent when she is told no one can tell Nai Nai about it. Her father (Tzi Ma) and mother (Diana Lin) tell Billi they’re going to China for her cousin’s wedding, which is a ruse for the family to gather around Nai Nai – but they believe she should stay behind due to concern that she’ll give away the bad news. Conflicted with pleasing her family, seeing her grandmother, and reconciling with her culture clash, Billi decides she needs to return to her childhood home. 

The Farewell is an outstanding movie that didn’t quite blow me away

Awkwafina had a solid year in 2018 with Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians…but in both films, she is a side character, mostly used for comedic relief. In The Farewell, not only is she the lead, but she is a complex character and is given many opportunities to showcase her versatility. Billi won me over very early in the film while talking with her Nai Nai on the phone (which writer and director Lulu Wang does an amazing job of naturally introducing her themes in these opening moments) and walking through the streets of NYC. She’s asked to sign a petition – and when she agrees, she informs the girl she used to do this job. The interaction demonstrates so much of who Billi is, and the sense of humor and naturalism that Awkwafina brings to the character. 

Everything about this movie feels lived-in, and the characters are so rich and likable. One of the things I truly loved about it is that nothing feels overdramatic or too heightened. The conflicts in the film are grounded in realism, and it makes it feel like you’re just sitting in the room with them. This, unfortunately, is what I believe makes this film feel like less of a masterpiece. With every one of my favorite films, I leave so pumped or horrified or whatever emotion said movie had intended to elicit. The movies I love grant me a sense of euphoria that lingers for long after it ends. The Farewell feels so normal and lived-in that this euphoric feeling was missing. However, there is nothing I could pinpoint to make me not love this film, except for this. 

The biggest surprise of all was that I expected this film to devastate me. We are sitting with a room full of people who know that their beloved matron is dying of lung cancer, and yet she is blissfully unaware. Nai Nai’s entire focus is on the wedding and it’s perfect execution, while also hosting her family that she’s not seen together in some time. Last year, I lost my grandmother, and I expected the hidden grieving that the family was doing in anticipation of cancer taking over would wreak havoc on my emotions. It never did, but I don’t feel like the movie failed to move me to tears – but rather it was never trying to do that. Instead, the film feels like a celebration of life, family, and putting the needs of others ahead of our own. In that sense, the two cultures of China and America are put at odds.

Final thoughts…

When you get a chance to see The Farewell, you definitely should. It’s perfectly written, amazingly acted, and unbelievably enjoyable. I wish I’d walked out floored with how great it was, but instead, I was just somberly content with how great it was. Surely it is a small distinction that will likely keep it out of my top five for the year, but it won’t stop it from earning the Must See rating.  

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