Moviegoers are clearly starving for a good old fashioned indie film in 2019, which may explain why writer/director Lulu Wang's second feature The Farewell has earned more money per theater in its opening weekend than Avengers: Endgame did. (Of course, we're comparing four theaters to four thousand, but still.) So is The Farewell worth all the hype it's gotten since its Sundance breakout? Well, sure – but be advised that it really is a quiet little family drama.
Based on Wang's own experiences, The Farewell's high concept is as follows: a Chinese family decides to keep the news of its elderly matriarch's cancer diagnosis a secret from her. In order to (passively) say goodbye to her, the clan reunites at the woman's home in Changchun, a large city in Northeast China, under the phony auspices of a grandson's wedding.
Billi (played by Awkwafina) is something of the black sheep in the family. Raised in New York City, Billi is more American, and thus presumably more emotional, than any of her relatives. Fearing that Billi will blurt out the secret and ruin her grandmother's final months, her parents tell her to stay home. But Billi heads off to Changchun anyway, because she wants to see her beloved "Nai Nai" one last time.
A lesser film would go one of two obvious routes: either Billi would spill the beans to Nai Nai and/or Nai Nai would surprise the family by revealing that she knew she was dying all along. But Wang has other things on her mind, and The Farewell is much more a meditation on what it means to be "Chinese" in this day and age. Her film is packed with subtle details, the specificity of which make her story all the more engaging. For instance, one of Nai Nai's two sixty-ish sons had relocated to Japan years ago, and his wardrobe reflects it; his hapless son Haohao, sporting a fashionable Japanese haircut, has been roped into this wedding scheme with his girlfriend of three months, a baffled but compliant young Japanese woman who doesn't speak a word of Mandarin. I found myself wondering what it must be like to be a Chinese person raised in Japan, and how Billi might relate to her only cousin when they have nothing in common but blood.
Awkwafina is an interesting choice to play Billi; the comic rapper-turned-actress abandons her zany shtick completely, spending most of the movie with sunken shoulders and a sullen expression – she can barely contain her sadness over the imminent loss of her grandmother. If the part was played exactly the same by an unknown actress, you'd get little sense of Billi's inner life, but Awkwafina's brash offstage persona adds a spark to her otherwise passive performance.
The real star of the show, however, is Shuzhen Zhao as the blissfully oblivious Nai Nai. Although Zhao has no IMDb credits, Wang has stated in interviews that Zhao is a "very famous soap opera star" in China, which is no surprise, given her seasoned performance. Awkwafina may bring the (relative) star power for American audiences, and each of the other main actors gets his or her little moment to reflect on Nai Nai's impending death, but it's the effervescent Zhao who walks away with the movie.