Wang’s avatar is Billie, played by Awkwafina, a 30-year-old New Yorker who, when we first meet her, is talking to her grandmother on her cellphone while navigating the streets on her way home. The conversation with her Nai-Nai is that mix of casual and warm that gives you the sense that this is something they do frequently. It’s also a mix of fact and fiction. In spite of Billie’s upbeat manner, her life, at the moment, is in a slump. She’s projecting upbeat energy to the world; you know the kind that says, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m still in the game!’ But in fact, at this moment, things are rough and uncertain.
Then really bad news hits. Nai-Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with end-stage cancer and has weeks, or at best, a few months to live. But the custom is that no one will actually tell Nai-Nai that she’s gravely ill. That, they feel, will kill her faster than the cancer.
So instead the family has arranged a quickie wedding between Billie’s cousin and his girlfriend so they have a chance to go to their hometown in China and spend quality time with Nai-Nai without her ever suspecting a thing. However, Billie is not invited because her parents, played by Diana Lin and Tzi Ma (Arrival, Veep) worry that she’s so emotional, mopey, and unfiltered she’ll spill the beans.
Of course that won’t stand. Billie hops a plane and the momentary surprise of her arrival is quickly absorbed as the family fall into their usual rituals. If Nai-Nai isn’t feeling well, it’s hard to tell. She’s now in full-on wedding planning mode, organizing venues, bargaining with disinterested chefs, and doting on her children and especially her grandchildren largely by ordering them around. The woman has serious spunk.
For her part, Billie tries to stay in the moment while wrestling with the morality of the decision to leave her beloved grandmother in the dark. She was born and lived in this little town and she’s aware of the way things are changing all around her. With so much of her life —and the things and fate of people she loves up — in the air, what can she hold onto?
The Farewell is a deliberately small film. Wang keeps us absorbed in daily life and the family members hustling around preparing dinner, making arrangements, and having those small moments together. There are no major emotional scenes of catharsis or even reconciling anything. Wang seems to have gone out of her way to avoid being manipulative. And the result is a movie that is in turns, warm, funny, offbeat, and grounded.
Although the nexus of the film is Nai-Nai’s diagnosis, this is really Billie’s story. As much as she can, Billie has set aside her current life worries to focus on being with Nai-Nai and the family, but still, she’s quietly at a crossroads. She’s putting on a brave face, but everyone in the family can see or sense her disquiet and so subtlety they wrap her in the kind of love that can buoy you along. The kind that says you are one of us, we love you no matter what. And so subtlety, Billie takes that love in, and radiates it back.
This is Awkwafina’s first starring role and she proves her mettle. As Billie she is mopey, emotional and unfiltered. She walks with her neck forward and her head down and has an air of uncertainty about her. And yet she holds the center of the film with a gentle grace. She’s a member of this quirky wonderful tribe and it means the world to her.
The Farewell isn’t tour de force filmmaking. It doesn’t have to be. In telling her own story, or something close to it, Wang has managed to stand far enough back to see the crazy wonderful way in which a family dynamic — full of strange and wonderful ideas about how to live life uplifts us — and has delivered a gentle little gem.
The Farewell. Written and directed by Lulu Wang. Starring Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Diana Lin and Tzi Ma. Opens in select theatres July 19 in Toronto and Vancouver (expanding July 26); opening July 26 in Montreal), Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Victoria, Halifax, Winnipeg; expanding nationally August 2.