Superstar indie distributors A24 love a coming of age story, so it’s no wonder they were immediately drawn to Lulu Wang’s The Farewell when it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It may not be a childhood to adulthood story, but in its look at the complex dynamics of a scattered Chinese family with a dying matriarch, it explores the kind of growing up that we have to do constantly throughout our lives and the many new kinds of ‘maturity’ we have to master. A breezy mix of comedy and drama, The Farewell is boosted by a great performance by Awkwafina, but doesn’t quite wring enough drama out of its premise to remain engaging.
Based on a true story told on the This American Life podcast, Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American New Yorker who returns to China to say goodbye to her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who is in the advanced stages of lung cancer. The problem is that no one has told Nai Nai the bad news, Billi’s father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and the rest of the family having concluded that it’s kinder for her to remain ignorant. So, instead, a wedding is planned for Billi’s cousin Haohao (Hao Chen) and his new girlfriend as an excuse to bring everyone together.
Desperate to tell her grandmother the truth, Billi is corralled from event to event by her family under constant instruction of ‘don’t tell her’. Awkwafina does a brilliant job selling the pain, guilt, and confusion of Billi’s situation and balancing these crushing burdens with moments of light and joy as she relishes being back in the company of her relatives. It’s easily her best and most fully realised screen performance yet and proves that she’s a genuine star, not just the comic relief in bigger ensembles.
Though there are a lot of fun and funny moments, The Farewell hits the same comic and dramatic beats too often, sapping the story of energy and impact and, though both Awkwafina and the supporting cast put in good work, it’s too lightweight to be hugely moving. Billi spends a lot of the film learning what it means to be a real grown up from her older and more emotionally controlled family members, but her central conflict of wanting to be both truthful and helpful (often mutually exclusive) rarely feels like all that much of a, well, conflict. Drama and tension are minimal, and though this creates a believable family environment, it’s not exactly gripping.
The score and soundtrack are great, with a lot of choral and hymnal tracks that give a more ethereal air to the otherwise committedly realistic proceedings. Wang also gets a lot of mileage out of the often surreal architecture of urban China, Billi’s feelings of alienation matched by the shifting, self-consciously modernising landscapes, which seem both familiar and unreal. A similar visual ambition is found at the drunken wedding reception, which spins gradually into an immersively hazy cacophony without becoming messy. These moments may add up to a little less than the sum of their parts, especially considering the tonally confused ending, but they’re still signs of Wang being a very exciting filmmaker to watch.