Sundance Film Review: Awkwafina Shows Her Dramatic Side in ‘The Farewell’

Coming off a stellar breakthrough year with two major comedic roles, actress Awkwafina steps into a very different project with the family drama, “The Farewell.”

“The Farewell,” tells the story of Billi, an American woman who immigrated to the United States with her parents at age 6. Still close with her grandmother half a world away, Billi is devastated to learn her Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer. She is even more distraught when she learns her family has no intention of telling their matriarch she has only months to live.

In an effort to bring family and friends back together, while also keeping this secret, Billi’s cousin Hao Hao reluctantly agrees to marry his new girlfriend. The wedding keeps Nai Nai occupied, while also providing a perfect cover for the ruse. Everyone is on board with this plan except Billi, who thinks Nai Nai deserves to know the truth about her diagnosis.

Director Lulu Wang crafted this story from her own family experience. She uses her vibrant and refreshing voice to speak about culture, identity, and the dynamics of families that live thousands of miles apart. Billi’s very American upbringing makes her question some of her family’s very Chinese traditions. Those questions lead to poignant discussions between the relatives about eastern and western philosophies. Wang’s script never draws a conclusion over which is better. Her point is simply that they are different and that families can find ways to navigate such differences.

Billi is plagued by other issues and questions in her life, too. At 30, she lives alone and has a job. But she still visits her parents’ house to do laundry. She has just been turned down for a fellowship and is generally lost in her life. She suffers the crisis that so many of her generation face. Unlike the generations before her, Billi has many opportunities. She can take her life in any direction. And this abundance of choices makes it all the more difficult to move forward. This is another area where Wang deftly examines the paradoxes of the generations.

Awkwafina made her mark last year with supporting roles in “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Now, in her first leading part, she proves that she is more than great one-liners and silly gags. Awkwafina is a talented dramatic actress, too. She beautifully portrays Billi, this woman who is still caught a little in the in-between. She is funny, because families are funny. But she is full of heart and emotions that brim until they spill over. She is a star on the rise, and her work in “The Farewell” is sure to open many more doors.

In addition to Awkwafina, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are exceptional as Billi’s parents. Tzi Ma is Haiyan, whose mother is the dying Nai Nai. He wrestles with the guilt of taking his wife and daughter so far away, while also knowing it was the right move for them. And Diana Lin as Billi’s mother possesses the qualities one might expect from a Chinese mother, with expectations and traditions. But what makes her all the stronger is her overwhelming heart and compassion. It is a lovely performance that deserves recognition.

“The Farewell” is not a film about loss or grief. It is about family and identity and love. It is about the people we are and how we become. The generations that lived before and how we can honor them as we move forward. This is a beautiful film that will surely find a passionate audience when it makes its way to theaters.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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