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“The Farewell” Announces Awkwafina As A Major Talent

Ever since the Sundance Film Festival, buzz has been building for The Farewell. Poised to be one of the fest’s potential awards season players, the heartfelt drama is opening this week and should begin accruing a number of new fans. Those at Sundance did not overhype this one, as it’s a tremendously good movie, one that will undoubtedly make you smile. Not quite the tearjerker you might be expecting, it’s still deeply emotional, yet handled so well it never seems even a little bit manipulative. It’s one of the better films of 2019 so far could certainly end up on Oscar’s radar.

For Billi (Awkwafina), her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is a huge figure in her life, even if the former is living in New York City, while the latter is in China. They talk often on the phone, exhibiting a close relationship. While visiting her parents for dinner one night, Billi learns from her mother Jian (Diana Lin) that Nai Nai’s sister (Lu Hong) took her to the doctor and she has terminal cancer. However, the entire family has decided not to tell her, citing a Chinese saying that “when people get cancer, they die.” The clan has opted to keep her in the dark, letting her enjoy the final months of her life in happiness in peace. Instead, they’re planning a phony wedding to have a giant family gathering in China, which they initially have not invited Billi to, assuming she wouldn’t be able to hold up her end of the lie. Billi shows up instead, determined to spend time with her grandmother. As she tries to deal with the whole situation, the family displays all the various eccentricities that all families do. Lulu Wang writes and directs, with the rest of the cast including Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Aoi Mizuhara, Jiang Yongbo, and more. Anna Franquesa Solano handles the cinematography, while the score is by Alex Weston.

There’s a ton of heart on display here. The film has a solid amount of light humor, even though the narrative through line is one of impending sadness. Wang doesn’t skimp on the joy either, as she really hits on how fulfilling it can be to have an entire family together for a celebration, whatever the occasion may be. The plot never really leans too heavily in one direction or the other. You’re always aware of why the family is visiting Nai Nai, but it’s not an overbearing sense of doom. Wang, along with the cast, sets this up as a poignant exploration of family dynamics. The family in question may be Chinese, with specific cultural touchstones, but much of what we see is universal in nature.

Awkwafina is a true revelation in The Farewell. There are glimpses of her jokey persona here and there, but largely, this is a dramatic performance. The quiet heartbreak she’s dealing with is ever present on her face, helping to paint the colors of Billi as a character. The rest of the cast are all effective as well, but Awkwafina is the real standout. If this is an accurate indication of her talents, and there’s no reason to assume that it’s not, the movie suggests that she can be a real A-lister. Leading lady status is on the horizon for her if this trend continues.

On Friday, audiences will finally see what everyone at Park City was raving about when The Farewell hits screens. The Sundance crowd was on to something with this one. Lulu Wang is an exciting young filmmaker to watch out for, Awkwafina takes a bold new step in her career, and it’s the rare PG movie that feels made for everyone. Look for the film to potentially compete for Academy Award attention in Best Original Screenplay as well. Regardless of whether it cracks an Oscar lineup or not, it’s one of 2019’s more satisfying independent features. Give it a look as it expands this weekend/the weekends to come and you’ll easily understand why…

Be sure to check out The Farewell, opening this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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