Awkwafina, the New York City rapper and comedian known for her 2018 turns in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, shows off her range in writer-director Lulu Wang's masterful family comedy The Farewell. Its subject matter, a family's collective decision not to tell the matriarch that she's dying of cancer, doesn't seem particularly suited for hilarity, but Wang creates a marvelous film that's often laugh out loud funny as it explores both geographic and generational divides. It opens Friday.
Awkwafina is Billi, a 30-year-old writer living in New York City struggling to find work and pay rent. Her personal and professional prospects seem dim, and when she gets a rejection letter from the Guggenheim Fellowship, one senses that she'd put most of her eggs in that risky basket.
On the other side of the world is her grandmother, whom Billi and the family call Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). In an opening hospital scene, Nai Nai gets a CT scan. Her sister is told that Nai Nai has cancer and limited time to live.
In order to spend time with Nai Nai, the family converges on her home in Changchun, in Northeastern China, on the auspices of celebrating a wedding for Billi's only cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his Japanese fiancée (Aoi Mizuhara), neither of whom speak Chinese. The wedding is a ruse. In truth, the family is gathering to secretly bid Nai Nai farewell, but have agreed that she musn't be told about her impending death. It's for that reason that Billi's parents have instructed her not to come. Billi is close with Nai Nai, and everyone is convinced she'd spill the beans.
Predictably, Billi disregards her parents' orders.
The logistics of setting up a wedding and getting in an appropriately festive mood, all in the knowledge that the matriarch is terminally ill, make for splendid moments of awkwardness, confusion and emotional displacement, as when the family trundles to the hospital when they learn Nai Nai has gone to the emergency room with a cough. Billi and the doctor, who was schooled in the UK, openly discuss Nai Nai's illness and the ethics of lying to her, in English, in front of everybody. Nai Nai can't understand, but she winks at Billi and tries to set up a date. "Tell me, Doctor," she says, "are you married?"
Billi is torn. She wants to honor the family's wishes but doesn't think it's right to keep her grandmother in the dark. That decision is complicated by the fact that she is torn between China and America, where she has lived since she was six. In the emotional climax of the film, she comes clean to her mother about how scary and difficult it was to adjust to life in the U.S.
Wang's script pinpoints and unearths not only the comedy but the humanity in these dark circumstances, and she absolutely nails the tone. The Farewell will be on a number of 'Best Of' lists by year's end, and it oughtta be.