The 400-Word Review: The Farewell

Awkwafina stars in one of the year's best films, a remarkable family dramedy from writer/director Lulu Wang.


If there is one immutable rule of family dynamics — and it may indeed be the only universal truth — it is: Sometimes, it’s better to shut up.

Not everything needs to be said, and dinner will often go better if key items are left out. Figuring out what is and is not appropriate to exclude, however, is trickier business — a lesson discovered, with surprising grace and beauty, in “The Farewell.”

Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American writer eking out a Millennial existence in New York, has just been rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship when she learns that her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal lung cancer. Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) explain that Nai Nai (an affectionate term for a paternal grandmother) has not been informed of her prognosis; culturally, it’s not uncommon to shield older relatives from knowledge of their fate if they have only a short time to live.

Everyone wants to visit Nai Nai while they can, so a quick wedding has been arranged between Billi’s cousin — that branch of the family lives in Japan — and his young girlfriend, creating an excuse to bring the family together without tipping Nai Nai off. Billi directly objects to the family’s decision; other family members understand it but can’t maintain their composure.

Writer/director Lulu Wang has incorporated elements of her own story into “The Farewell.” She too was born in China but mostly raised in America; as we see in a pre-credit coda, there’s a lot of her own Nai Nai represented in Shuzhen’s character. In using those specifics, however, she has tapped into something heartbreaking and universal. The script is a true dramedy, straddling the line between humor and pathos effortlessly. Behind the camera, Wang is a magician, wringing implacable, momentous emotion out of her shots in a truly remarkable way. 

There’s an east versus west lesson in Billi’s struggle, obviously; from an American mindset, Billi finds the omission unconscionable, while Chinese attitudes regard it as a matter of course. (Nai Nai hid her own husband’s diagnosis from him, it turns out.) But “The Farewell” isn’t a culture-shock movie; fundamentally, it’s a film about family. And like all the best familial fables, it reflects the reality of interacting with one’s own people: it’s complex, difficult and emotionally taxing, yet rich with meaning and import that cannot — and, perhaps, should not — be spoken.

My Rating: 10/10

"The Farewell" opens in select Pittsburgh theaters on Friday, August 2.

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