Sundance 2019 Review: Awkwafina Proves Her Dramatic Range in The Farewell

A movie about a family hiding the family matriarch from her own terminal illness. On paper, it sounds rather dour. But in the hands of writer/director Lulu Wang, The Farewell becomes a bittersweet dramedy about the conflicts of cultural ties. It’s also carried by an effortless leading performance from Awkwafina who, along with the incredible ensemble cast, masterfully demonstrates the movie’s balance of humor and heartbreak.

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In The Farewell, Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese American woman whose grandmother, also known as her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), becomes fatally diagnosed with lung cancer. Due to Chinese culture traditions, Billi’s family doesn’t reveal Nai Nai’s own diagnosis to her and stages a false wedding as a way for the whole family to get together and say their goodbyes. Billi’s own parents advise her not to travel to China because of their fears that she might cause the plan to go awry. However, she still relents and goes anyhow.

When Billi arrives, she inadvertently reveals the burden that her family’s cultural practices have on her. In the process, the burden that her family members have carried on becomes revealed as well. Also, the actors that play Billi’s relatives present the effects of the traditions they’ve practiced either through straight-laced disillusionment or sly humor used to mask their inner turmoil. The standouts in the supporting cast are easily Zhao Shuzhen as the sweet yet native Nai Nai and both Diana Lin and Tzi Ma as Billi’s worrisome mother and father.

With that being said, Awkwafina is still the center of this amazing picture. After proving herself to be an expert comedic scene stealer last year with Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina is given an opportunity to show off her dramatic range and she knocks it out of the park. Even if it’s not an emotionally hysterical or physically transformative performance in the same manner as other performances by comedians playing it straight, it still is quietly impactful. With just her face, Awkwafina lets us see the weight Billi seems to carry on her shoulders. She also gets one powerful monologue that brilliantly captures a near lifetime of heartbreak Billi has felt.

That particular monologue is one strong moment from the naturalistic screenplay by Lulu Wang that is culturally specific yet universal. The subtle dramatic tension between the family members demonstrated through awkward, agitated glances feels like the kind of tension that many families typically face when they gather together. As a result of the film’s slight universal appeal, The Farewell only strengthens its impact.

All in all, though, The Farewell packs a powerful emotional punch while still offering plenty of humor to give it some levity. It reminds us that no matter how badly some family members may hurt us, in the end, family is still family. We may not have a say in what they do or what rules they may abide by. But we can still decide how to process our reactions from the influential life decisions they make even if it becomes a rough road. Thankfully, with its potent blend of humor and heartbreak, The Farewell isn’t a completely gut-wrenching journey.

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Matthew St.Clair

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