As we’ve discussed, it’s been pretty difficult to trust the big budget blockbusters this summer, resulting in a very indie-driven year for me. We’ve had a few truly great spectacles, but by and large the movies that have been keeping me captivated in the theaters and not actively wishing things would wrap up so I could go home, have been the smaller types of movies that are still miraculously being played on the big screen. And, if there’s one studio that has cornered the market on such movies lately, it has to be A24, a studio which has by and large had a pretty great track record of releasing movies that I connect very well to. Obviously there have been some stinkers and outliers, but I generally really dig the types of stories that A24 are bringing to the masses, and seeing their logo generally gives me an assurance that I’ll probably like whatever movie they’re selling. Which is what did a lot of the legwork to get me interested in their latest film, Lulu Wang’s the Farewell. On its surface the film seemed to be an interesting story, a highly autobiographical tale about a young woman dealing with her family’s decision to keep her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis a secret, and it seemed like the type of movie that would earn some tears and some awards. But, I really had my fair share of doubt when it came to the lead actress of the film, Awkwafina, who I’d really only seen in Ocean’s 8, and who I’ve generally gotten a somewhat problematic feel from. But, I decided to give it a shot in spite of these reservations, and I’m so glad I did, because I really loved this special little film.
The story revolves around a young woman named Billi who is living in New York, struggling to become an author while everything in her life seems deadset on preventing that. And, things get even worse when she learns from her parents that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and will be dying soon. And, what’s more, the family have decided that they’re going to keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, telling her that she’s actually fine. But, the family still wants to be with Nai Nai in her last weeks, so they concoct a largely fake wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao as an excuse for the whole family to get together. Well, everyone but Billi, whose parents believe will be too emotional and spoil the whole ruse. Billi refuses this logic though, and spends what seems to be the last of her money getting a ticket to China so that she can spend time with her grandmother, instantly realizing that she may indeed be too emotional to keep it through this whole thing.
The film then generally becomes a series of small vignettes, with the family planning Hao’s wedding while dancing around the subject of Nai Nai’s health. Billi does her best to separate every major member of the family to try and get their opinion on the whole lie, but they generally believe that they’re doing the right thing, and that this will protect Nai Nai. Everyone involved, including the doctors, thinks that this is the most logical thing to do, and Billi begins to feel like she’s going insane. But, she goes along with it, taking every moment she can to spend time with her beloved grandmother while doing everything she can not to make it clear that’s she’s incredibly depressed. And it all leads to the fake wedding, which Nai Nai virtually planned herself, proud to show off for her family. It’s a tough evening, with several family members breaking down and doing their best to hide it from Nai Nai, who is generally having a lovely time. Billi gets to see her grandmother happy and surrounded by family who love her. And, after getting some words of encouragement and love from her grandmother, Billi returns to America, unsure of what will happen with her Nai Nai.
I had heard some pretty great things about this film. And, the trailer did seem to promise a sweet little story. I just went in with the slightest bit of apprehension due to Awkwafina, but that turned out to be completely baseless, because this film is an absolute treasure. It’s a beautiful, intimate little film that instantly transports you into the murky world of family drama, putting you into this family in a way that you immediately know what’s going on. It’s a simple film, full of lovingly shot scenes of Changchun clearly coming from Lulu Wang’s own personal stories and love of her hometown, relying almost entirely on the strength of the performances. And they’re all pretty phenomenal. I was pleasantly surprised at the range Awkwafina presented, giving us a character who is a barely contained ball of rage, sadness, and confusion, doing her best to do right by her family while constantly on the verge of just exploding and exposing the entire lie. Zhao Shuzhen, the actress playing Nai Nai is also amazing, giving an incredibly authentic grandmother performance that transcends any sort of cultural barrier to pluck on your heartstrings in a masterful way, immediately leaving anyone who had a close relationship with a departed grandparent an absolute mess.
Our relationships with our grandparents are very unique ones. Obviously, people have all sorts of different lives they lead, and there’s plenty of people who don’t have perfect little picture-book relationships with their grandparents, but for people who did have largely healthy relationships with their grandparents, their deaths are incredibly difficult. They’re lovable old people who you generally lose when you’re starting to become an adult, and that perfectly symbolize your childhood, right at the time when you’re officially leaving behind that era of your life. The death of a grandparent comes wrapped up in a whole slew of other emotional landmines for most people, and this film handles that mixture of nostalgia, sadness, and love in a really beautiful way. But, what it also gets to the heart of is the question of why really benefits from saying goodbye. People are put into the position of this film every day, being forced to reconcile between saying goodbye to a loved one, or not. I’ve lost a couple grandparents, a several great-grandparents, and have had it both handled in a way where I saw them near the end, and when I hadn’t seem them in a depressing amount of time. And, neither one is easy. Billi makes the case in this film that Nai Nai should know about her impending death, and the real reason for this family get together, because she may have things she needs to say, and to form a goodbye on her terms. But, the question becomes, who would that goodbye be for? Would it really help Nai Nai in her final moments to think about her impending death, or would it just help Billi process this massive change in her life. Is it up to Nai Nai to sacrifice some final months of bliss to potentially make Billi more at ease over her death? Its a complicated thing, and it’s something that you really have to torment yourself over when placed in this position, and there’s really no right answer. But, that’s life.
The Farewell was written and directed by Lulu Wang and released by A24, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk