The Farewell Movie Review

The Farewell movie poster

Honesty is not the best policy in The Farewell, in which a family opts to not tell their grandma that she’s dying of cancer while putting on a wedding as an excuse to all come together and commiserate. The movie, in which writer/director Lulu Wang finds that perfect balance of comedy and drama in a movie about the gulf between East and West, presents a fascinating exploration of the role of family.

As one character puts it, “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die.”

So what’s the point in telling them? In the West, it’s duty, even law; in China, where much of The Farewell takes place, it’s a recipe for accelerating their decline. If you know you’re going to die, the assumption is that the knowledge of such a fate will kill you faster than the disease. Instead of placing the burden on one individual—the inflicted—the pain and fear should be shared by those closest to the person.

It’s an interesting concept, one that is hard—but not impossible—to wrap your mind around if you didn’t grow up with that mentality. The Farewell, based on Wang’s own experiences, revolves around the conflicting and often contradictory viewpoints, focusing on a young woman named Billi (Awkwafina) who, having been raised in New York by Chinese immigrants, struggles with the lie.

The end result is a rewarding, amusing, and thought-provoking tale that shifts from drama to comedy and back to drama again, often within a single scene. It’s grounded nature and attention to detail—what is happening in the background or plastered to the wall is often just as entertaining as what’s central to any given scene—works wonders. And surely, for those of Chinese descent, there were a thousand other nuanced detailed and moments that went right over my head.

The movie is powered by a sensational cast, led by an excellent Awkwafina performance. She is instantly relatable and wears her emotions on her sleeve, the perfect vessel through which to tell this story. The rest of the cast, notably Shuzhen Zao as Nai Nai (the grandma) and Diana Lin and Tzi Ma as Billi’s parents, brings to life a menagerie of unique and fully defined characters, regardless of the amount of screen time they’re given.

The Farewell didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, the movie missing a few opportunities to be funnier or more dramatic, but there is no denying that Wang has assembled a winner here. Honesty may not be the best policy, but it makes for one of the better movies of the year.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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