This “true story based on an actual lie” is a lovely, very personal film written and directed by Chinese-American Lulu Wang. Based on an incident involving her own grandmother, Wang centers the story around a young woman named Billi, played by the fabulously talented Awkwafina (who absolutely stole all her scenes in the hit Crazy Rich Asians last year). Billi, born in China but (like Wang) raised in America, finds out that her beloved grandmother is terminally ill with cancer. But the thing is, grandma Nai Nai (the lovely and charming Shuzhen Zhou) is the only one who doesn’t know. The freaked out extended family has decided not to tell her, instead planning to gather to see their elder one last time under the guise of coming together for a cousin’s wedding. American Billi is justifiably horrified by this plan, but begrudging agrees to keep mum.
That framework is really all you need to know about the plot. Nai Nai keeps it light, but the rest of the multi-generational family looks like they’ve been punched in the face by grief. Which, despite how it sounds, is quite funny. Like many families, they realize it’s been decades since they were all together. Adult sons, wives, cousins, kids raised locally and abroad. Comparisons of where they are from, how they’ve changed, and their choices are discussed over food or drink. There are no fistfights (like American family reunion movies), but there are tears, awkwardness, silence, and lots of love.
Yeah, there is a good chance you’ll cry. A man near me probably blamed his snuffling throughout the film on allergies, but I’m sure those were tears he was wiping away with sleeve. But don’t despair. You will also laugh. A lot. Somewhat surprisingly, the jokes totally work in translation, even when, for example, they are delivered in deadpan English (like when Billi’s mom says, “In China we have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.” If you can’t laugh, you’ll cry. If you can’t cry, you may as well laugh.
The Farewell, with its cross-cultural immigrant story, plays particularly poignantly these days. But I don’t think it takes being an immigrant (or the child of an immigrant) to appreciate the complexity of the family portrayed. There was a moment that I was definitely reminded of my immigrant mom, but then again, my companion also recognized her own American grandmother in Nai Nai. I think the reason The Farewell works so well is because all viewers will recognize some of their own in this complex, funny, trying-to-do-their-best family. It is a funny, gentle, emotional, and satisfying surprise.