Before you get caught in the holiday film hoopla, check out Awkwafina in “The Farewell.”
Touching, vulnerable and heartbreaking, she enters the world of drama with great confidence and comes away with a performance that should be remembered at year’s end.
In the lively film, the “Crazy Rich Asians” star plays an aspiring writer who banishes her own woes by talking regularly by phone with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), in China. Their bond – forged when she was living there as a child – has never weakened, even though Awkwafina’s Billi and her parents are now living in New York.
When she learns Nai Nai has stage four lung cancer, she insists she wants to see her.
The relatives, however, believe it’s best not to let the elderly woman know what’s wrong. Instead, they agree to assemble for a wedding.
Naturally, Nai Nai moves into organizational mode and plans an event that will impress her friends and neighbors.
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Through it all, Billi wants to say something to her grandmother so she can open up to her. The family holds her back and the bride- and groom-to-be prompt plenty of ridicule and laughs.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” provides a telling slice of Chinese life and a good look at medicine in a different culture. Because they find a physician with English skills, Billi’s able to ask him about the practice of keeping the truth from a person who’s dying. She’s surprised at his answer, but she’s also unwilling to let her mother’s cold approach deter her.
The wedding, the family gatherings and the journeys around China make the situation highly relatable. We may not be familiar with the customs, but we totally understand the emotions.
As good as she is, Awkwafina wouldn’t be as effective without Shuzhen’s performance. She’s a great grandma, willing to have secrets with her granddaughter and a view of the relatives that’s spot on.
She handles the illness with aplomb, too, and can brush off symptoms like they’re a swarm of flies.
The wedding dinner is particularly fun. Speeches, toasts and drunken relatives will remind you of folks you know oh-so-well. And when Awkwafina takes the stage to deliver her greeting, you’ll see why she has such a bright future as an actress.