Lulu Wang celebrates grandmothers in ‘The Farewell’
Grandmothers play essential roles in people’s lives.
Perhaps the generation “in between” gives this particular relationship unique opportunities to share with clarity and candor. Or, maybe, specific issues are easier to discuss without involving parents. All I know, as a grandparent, is how I still cherish every moment I spent with my grandmothers, all these years later, and look forward to the same.
Lulu Wang’s lovely film, “The Farewell,” celebrates the special bond that can thrive between granddaughter and grandmother. We see, from the opening moments, how much Billi (played by Awkwafina) cherishes conversations with her grandmother, Nai Nai, even though they are separated by thousands of miles. While Billi tries to find her way in New York City, her beloved grandmother follows a quiet routine in China, unaware of what her family may be cooking behind the scenes.
That’s because, when Nai Nai’s relatives hear some news about the matriarch’s health, they find themselves caught between what may be best for Nai Nai and what they need to deal with their reactions. So, when they decide to hide the truth from Nai Nai, and act as if nothing could be wrong, Billi begins to question the wisdom and authenticity of their choices. While some filmmakers might only pursue this one story line, Lang, working from memories of her own grandmother and family, also examines how families can use deception to influence how they react to difficult situations. The moviemaker poses real questions about how we should protect those we love from realities we hope they never face.
With the gentleness of a light rain, writer/director Lang creates a special world for Billi, Nai Nai and the other members of this most engaging family. Without giving in to any temptation to create exaggerated situations or characters, the moviemaker lets the people evolve, slowly at times, as they connect and explore. Looking through Billi’s eyes, Lang details the multiple layers that may live within a family, from those who may feel neglected or disappointed, to those who try to manipulate or influence. She never resists any chance to help her characters learn more about themselves as they try to make sense of how they react to what may happen with Nai Nai as they try many times to hide how it makes them feel.
While the film examines real issues, Lang handles it all with such lightness that the film emerges as a most delightful look at the eccentricities of family relationships. Grounding the film, its humor as well as its humanity, is Awkwafina’s breakthrough performance. This delightful comedienne, who stole every possible scene in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” explores a deeper side of her talent as Billi faces serious questions about life, destiny, relationships and responsibility. The actress glows on screen, even in scenes without dialogue, carefully under playing her reactions to situations that could tempt a lesser actress into a broader interpretation.
Thankfully, “The Farewell” also knows when to hold back, when to resist, and how to avoid any tendency to give the film a typical Hollywood happy ending. Fortunately, Lang is too authentic a filmmaker to realize, ultimately, she is making a movie.
Film Nutritional Value: "The Farewell"
Content: High. At its core “The Farewell” is a beautifully-written and directed exploration of how guilt can travel through generations.
Entertainment: High. Even with its meaningful subject matter, “The Farewell” is an accessible film because its central characters are so engaging.
Message: High. This meaningful film reminds us that family challenges can bring out the best in people unless we refuse to learn from our actions.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about the realities of family relationships can be valuable.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your older children about the different ways characters handle guilt in the film, and what it teaches them about how people can try to protect each other.
“The Farewell” is Rated PG for “thematic material, brief language and some smoking.” The film runs 1 hour, 40 minutes.