Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Farewell - Review

To love, laugh, and cry with family is nearly a universal experience. The familial dynamics that can be equal parts complex, infuriating, and wonderful all at the same are recognizable qualities that so many can relate to, regardless of the setting or language they’re portrayed in. In Lulu Wang’s beautifully realized, semi-autobiographical film The Farewell, the writer-director captures the realities of a family that remains family no matter the circumstances or distance in their lives, and it all comes together for one of the year’s best films.

Billi's (Awkwafina) family returns to China under the guise of a fake wedding to stealthily say goodbye to their beloved matriarch (Shuzen Zhou) -- the only person that doesn't know she only has a few weeks to live.

Though the film is steeped in Chinese traditions, philosophy and culture, the identifiable nature of each and every family member is almost uncanny. The obvious connection for most viewers will be to Billi, a 30 year old held to high expectations that can't reach them most of the time, but audiences will still likely find one character in this expansive family that gels with a member of their own, for better or worse of course.

But The Farewell is not all family drama, in fact it is probably equal parts comedy and drama. The comedic moments are not big or flashy, most come from a little spat here or a snide comment there, but it all maintains that natural feeling that washes over this entire film. A lot of this is due to Lulu Wang’s ability and her very acute skills in managing tone, pace, and theme like a seasoned pro. The drama is measured, never drifting into melodrama, the humor is brief but effective, and the whole endeavor just soars from one scene to the next, yearning to spend as much time with this family as possible.

Beyond the filmmaking talents of Wang, the other two components that really sell the entire film are exceptional performances from Awkwafina and Shuzen Zhou. Fresh off a gigantic 2018, Awkwafina delivers her best performance by far in her brief career. Gone are the bigger or showier performances of her past few films, replaced instead by a presence that requires far more nuance and emotion, and she delivers on both fronts. And  then there is Shuzen Zhou. In her first acting role ever, Zhou portrays Nai Nai, the clear head of the family who has reached an age where she speaks her mind with little concern for a filter, and is an absolute delight. Zhou handles the breadth of the role with the ease you’d expect from someone who had done this for years, and, in doing so, may just have acted her way straight into the awards conversation.

The Farewell is a perfect showcase for the talents of Lulu Wang, a filmmaker that understands film language and utilizes that knowledge to portray a story filled with universal ideas and themes. Two excellent, award worthy performances from Awkwafina and Shuzen Zhou elevate an already great film to something that is essential viewing in 2019. While the rest of Hollywood struggles to find a film that will connect with audiences on even the most basic level, The Farewell brings enough heart and emotion to make up for all of it.

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