Of all the things compelling about Lulu Wang’s cross-cultural family drama The Farewell, the starring role of Awkwafina as Billi firmly establishes this film as something special. The rapper/actress with the raspy voice elevated the likes of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians in supporting roles. Here, she’s a star, and proves she can truly shoulder a film with charisma and wit.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Billi is a young New Yorker looking to follow her artistic ambitions, only to find the struggles with rent very real. She chats with her grandmother, Nai Nai, over the phone to China and tells white lies about her own success. When an illness befalls the grandmother, the family decides to have a wedding for a cousin as an excuse for everyone to come visit, keeping the extent of the illness a secret from the matriarch of the family.
It’s the kind of lie that places the burden of worry and concern not on the patient but those around them. The cultural collision of what’s right in this circumstance sets the story apart, delving deeply into the difference but also what ties the family together.
In presenting this ambivalence, Awkwafina shines. We travel with her own emotional ups and downs, understanding the tug between what she’s used to and respecting the traditions that she hasn’t fully grown up with. At the same time, the changing landscape of China is addressed, including subtle digs at each country’s policies.
Emotional without ever being maudlin, the film has some wonderfully subtle moments that speak volumes. Look at the awkwardness of the Japanese bride posing for photos while doing her own best to help the family, or the broken elevator in the newly constructed hotel. Behind the façade of an exploding China are remnants of the old, and growing pains for the new.
The rest of the cast is extremely sympathetic to these disparate elements, but it’s through Awkwafina’s eyes that we see the world. Billi’s own journey is one we all feel participants in, regardless of where we come from, finding in the specificity of this cultural expression universal truths about humanity.
A breakout role for a star on the rise, The Farewell goes well beyond its simple narrative and presents us with something profound and entertaining at the same time.