Awkwafina had a breakthrough year in 2018 with her supporting roles in Ocean’s 8 and especially Crazy Rich Asians. In The Farewell, the rapper turned actress proves that her range isn’t limited to the wise-cracking best friend role. This is a performer with an uncanny ability to transition between comedy and drama. As if finding that balance wasn’t difficult enough, she also learned to speak Mandarin for the film, making her performance all the more authentic. This role feels like it was tailor-made for Awkwafina, but we never see Awkwafina playing a character on the screen. We see a fully fleshed out individual navigating her way through a family crisis.
Awkwafina stars as Billi, a young woman who was born in China and raised in America. While Billi is brought up on western traditions, she still keeps in touch with her grandmother in China. Zhao Shuzhen plays Billi’s grandma, referred to as Nai Nai, in a U.S. film debut worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration. Billi is shocked upon learning that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung Cancer. What comes as an even greater blow to Billi is that Nai Nai’s family and doctors have decided to keep this news from her. Billi’s mother and father, played by Diana Lin and Tzi Ma, respectively, are going to China for a cousin’s wedding, although it’s really just an excuse to say goodbye to the clueless Nai Nai. In spite of her high emotions, Billi decides to join her family in China, but isn’t sure if she can keep the truth concealed.
The Farewell claims to be “based on an actual lie,” which is true. Writer/director Lulu Wang faced a similar trial following her own grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. Just like in the film, Wang’s family took great measures to keep the truth from her, assuming that she only had weeks to live. This custom came as a surprise to Awkwafina and is sure to intrigue numerous western audiences. What makes The Farewell such a wise film is that it never takes a side on the debate. The screenplay makes a solid defense for ignorance, as Nai Nai is able to go about her days spreading optimism and joy. At the same time, everyone who knows the secret is forced to carry the burden and not everyone is guaranteed closure in the end.
While the film is largely about culture shock, it’s also about the areas where western and eastern cultures intersect. No matter which side of the world you’re from, most families have a matriarch not unlike Nai Nai. A material figure who’s constantly trying to bring the family together, either through warmth or warm food. Speaking of food, every other scene seems to find Billi and company surrounded by a buffet, which is traditional for any family get-together. Above all else, the film captures how all of us process grief. Even if you never kept a fatal diagnosis from a loved one, we can all relate to the anguish of losing somebody. Billi’s father has an especially honest breakdown in which he repents for the time he spent away from Nai Nai and the years they’ll never get back.
If Crazy Rich Asians was the equivalent of going to a wild wedding, The Farewell is like attending a somber funeral, but in a positive way. For all the sorrow, Wang has also crafted a film that’s as funny as it is relatable. The biggest laugh of all comes in the final scene, which serves as a punchline to a joke that we didn’t even know was being told. This joke doesn’t come at the expense of the movie’s overarching themes, however. It merely offers a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. That light doesn’t necessarily need to be an ending, though. Sometimes it can be a new beginning ushered in with a ray of hope.