The Farewell - B+
Rated PG, 98 minutes
In English and in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
If there ever was a breakout film, it's the touching and utterly charming new dramedy "The Farewell." It's a breakout for its director and writer Lulu Wang and its star, rapper now up and coming indie darling Awkwafina.
Billi ("Crazy Rich Asians'" appealing Awkwafina, in a star-making role) and her family return to China under the guise of a fake wedding to stealthily say goodbye to their beloved grandmother and matriarch -- Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) the only person that doesn't know she only has a few weeks to live because its kept a secret by her family.
Remarkably, the heartfelt "The Farewell" isn't as sad or heartless as its premise seems, which is a common ritual in Chinese culture. Instead, Wang's superbly-acted, often subtle film speaks to universal themes of family love and loyalty. "The Farewell" is led by rising star Awkwafina in a bittersweet, funny turn, who is making her way to the A-list in another Asian-themed film after last year's big hit "Crazy Rich Asians."
"The Farewell" should also be commended not only for skillfully playing on universal family themes, but also keeping it grounded emotionally; based on real events from Wang's life (we see her still-living, real Nai Nai at the film's credits), it could've turned cliched and overemotional easily, and that it manages to keep its tears in check but still move you, is a feat that many skilled filmmakers have trouble achieving today.
Even with its emotions in check (watch the scene at the beginning in which Awkwafina's Billi meets Nai Nai for the first time since learning of her diagnosis, Wang handles it beautifully hanging on to the scene just long enough), "The Farewell" could've easily been infused with a tad more dramatic heft in its last act and still been just fine. Still, Billi and Nai Nai share some terrific scenes together, whether it's humorously learning some Chinese exercise moves ("hey!") to their touching final embrace.
"The Farewell," filmed on location in China, has plenty of fun nods to Chinese culture (the wedding scenes are especially memorable), and is a poignant reminder of how important family is to us. It's also the indie sleeper hit of the summer, so put this on your list to see alongside many of the other bigger films out at the moment.