‘The Farewell’ is One of 2019’s Best (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=9.00]

Coming as it does in the midst of the blockbuster season so overrun by big budget superheroes and studio tentpoles, The Farewell is a delightful surprise. It’s a quiet movie that feels better suited for the late autumn awards rush. Not that I’m complaining. The summer cinematic season can always stand the kind of movie that reminds audiences what’s so great about movies in the first place, and The Farewell is certainly that.

It is, in fact, one of the best movies of the year, one that explicitly explores not just the ins and outs of Asian-American identity, but the immigrant identity as well. It does so beautifully and subtly, with writer/director Lulu Wang (Posthumous) creating a wonderfully evocative and emotional tale that warms the heart as much as it wrenches it. It also features a shocking, star-making turn for rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina. While she stole the show in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, here she proves that she’s capable of much, much more than just the comedic side character and gives one of the year’s most remarkable performances.

She stars as Billi, a young immigrant from China struggling to get footing in the artistic world. Between her bohemian life in New York City and the suburban, working class enclave in which her parents live, she’s a woman stuck between worlds in more ways the one. As she struggles to balance her identities, news that her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer hits her hard. Harder still is the news that her family has decided not to tell her grandmother that she’s dying so that she can enjoy her last few months of life without worry or stress. In order to visit her one last time, the family constructs a wedding as an excuse to travel back home without letting news of the diagnosis slip.

From this premise, Wang is able to explore not only the differences in culture between China and America—in the U.S., the thought of not telling someone they’re dying is not only morally suspect but, as is pointed out in one particularly emotional scene, also illegal—but also the struggles of forging your identity with the push-pull of cultural influence. Billi, whose future is in the air along with her plans, struggles as the China she remembers from her youth is changing into the China it is today.

Awkwafina balances the nuances of these themes in raw intensity, giving a captivating turn that belies everything she’s done as a performer so far. As great as she was in Crazy Rich Asians and even Ocean’s 8, she’s transcendent here, solidifying herself as an incomparable actress with talent to spare. She truly gives an awards worthy performance that, in a just world, will be well remembered come Oscar season.

As great as she is, Zhao steals the show as Nai Nai (Chinese for grandmother). She is the grandmother that exists perfectly in everyone’s minds. Spunky, hilarious, serious, and loving, she is the emotional center upon which The Farewell is built and, as much as Awkwafina helps her shoulder it, she carries the burden delightfully. Do be warned: seeing this movie on an empty stomach is an exercise in self-torture. Like any grandmother, Nai Nai stuffs her family silly with an assortment of food that you’ll wish you could pull from the scene and sample for yourself.

The Farewell is a soul nourishing dose of family warmth and one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Alternatingly tender and emotional, it’s a powerful testament to the culture-spanning love that can come from one place only. In a season beset by bombast and vapidity, The Farewell is a breath of fresh air.

The Farewell is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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