Young Billi (Awkwafina) is a writer who struggles to make rent on her Manhattan apartment. She regularly checks in with her doting, doddering grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) back in China. Billi confronts her immigrant parents when they start acting a little off, and they repay her with a gut-punch: Billi’s grandmother–her Nai Nai–has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and only has a few months to live. They stun her even more with the news that the family has no intention of telling the grandmother about her poor prognosis. What if her Nai Nai wants to say goodbye? What if they want to say goodbye to her? Her parents tell her that’s just the way it’s done in China. In Billi’s mind, this harshly subtracts an opportunity to have closure with one of her closest relatives.
Her family grows even more selfish and forbids Billi the chance to travel to China with them, because she’ll “show too much emotion.” Thankfully, Billi defies this edict and boards a plane anyway. The family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao, (Chen Han) to marry a very recent girlfriend to act as cover for this big reunion. As Nai Nai slowly grows more ill, Billi can only sit in miserable silence as even the doctors play along with the ruse.
All this might make The Farewell sound like a real bummer, but it’s really not. As with any transition in life, many emotions flow together in the same winding river: Moments of silly humor and sly observations of human nature mingle with scenes of cold, lonely grief and long-repressed emotions. This movie may have sadness at its center, but warmth and likability surround this inner core.
Much of that impact is powered by a fierce performance from Awkwafina, who now proves herself ready for leading roles. Her Billi is a dense, difficult character, and for proof of how brilliant she is, look for a scene in the middle of the movie, where Hao Hao and his bride have engagement pictures made. Nai Nai turns to Billi and smiles contentedly. “Someday, I’ll plan an even bigger banquet for you.” Through her immense heartbreak, Billi plasters on a poker face, even though we can still read sadness, anger, and painful love, all at once. Without one word, Awkwafina gives us an entire paragraph of what’s going on in her character’s head.
Billi’s uncle points out that her view of death has been influenced by her time in the West, where the focus is on the individual. The Chinese look more at the continuation of the whole: The family absorbs the emotional difficulty of her imminent fate because it spares Nai Nai from experiencing it herself. As the title implies, this story isn’t about death, but the goodbye that precedes it. Billi must sift through all the cultural differences, put aside her mounting frustration, and say farewell in her own special way. This is one of the best movies of the year so far.
97 minutes. PG.
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