In a summer full of superheroes, shootouts and special effects, "The Farewell" is a welcome reprieve.
Writer/director Lulu Wang's film is intimate and personal – yet its portrait of family and loss is something that everyone can identify with. It's that delicate balance that makes "The Farewell" pretty special and a film we will likely be talking about come awards season.
"The Farewell" tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American woman who is still very close with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) despite living on different continents.
Billi learns from her mother and father that Nai Nai has terminal cancer, and is given just months to live, but the family has decided not to let her know how serious her illness is.
With one of the grandchildren about to marry, the family sees the wedding as a chance to get the family together one more time and say their goodbyes to the family matriarch without revealing her prognosis.
Billi's family encourages her to stay back in America, afraid she will let the secret slip, but Billi opts to come back to see her grandmother – struggling with the likelihood that this will be the last time she ever sees her.
Wang based "The Farewell" on her own story (the film begins by saying "based on a true lie") and that personal attachment to the project really comes through in the final material. This is a film that understands the intricacies of family dynamics. She immerses the audience in this world in a way where we feel like we are one of the family and are completely invested in the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai.
Awkwafina and Zhao's dynamic performances reward that investment. This is a dramatic side of Awkwafina we haven't seen before, but it shows the talented comedian has some pretty good dramatic chops as well. Zhao is a scene-stealer playing this delightfully layered character who has always put her family first.
"The Farewell" finds the laughs between the tears, with the tone never forced. It's a film that has stayed with me long after I left the theater. If Wang made this as a love letter to her family she has succeeded, but she has also made something even more special – it's a love letter to families everywhere, a special piece of filmmaking that is one of 2019's best films to date.