The Farewell is based on a story shared with the radio program This American Life by writer-director Lulu Wang, which you can find here. Wang was born in Beijing but raised on the East Coast, which made for a culture clash when her family informed her that her grandmother, Nai Nai, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, had only three months to live … and that the family wasn’t going to tell Nai Nai. The story is a great segment on Life, and The Farewell is a lovely telling of it — a deftly played drama about families and lies agreed upon.
Billi (Awkwafina) stands in for Lulu here. She’s an artist living in New York City, hoping to get a Guggenheim scholarship — or so her parents think, as she knows she’s been denied what seems to be her last financial hope of living away from home. Her parents are in the suburbs; her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), is a translator. We first meet Billi on the phone with Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), her grandmother who still lives in China. Billi tells Nai Nai she’s wearing a hat (she’s not) to make her stop worrying about the cold of New York City. Nai Nai declines to tell Billi that she is in a hospital waiting room.
It doesn’t take long for Billi to learn from her mother (Diana Lin) that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and that the whole extended family is making a pilgrimage back to China to say goodbye — without really saying goodbye. The family, dispersed across the globe for decades, is returning to visit Nai Nai under the mutually determined cover of a wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao and his girlfriend. (Somewhat unclear in the movie: Hao Hao is already married, but in Japan. His Chinese wedding was scheduled a year later).
Nobody is going to tell Nai Nai that she has a terminal diagnosis. To tell her would be cruel, as who would stay to take care of her? Why should she live out her final days in stress and woe?
The ensuing drama has Billi coming to grips with the cultural differences between her Chinese-American upbringing and her family members who stayed in China as she grapples with the impending loss of Nai Nai. Along the way the family tells little lies to and fro.
One of the questions at the heart of The Farewell is what truly constitutes a bad lie. Is their choice to lie to Nai Nai done to protect themselves or her? It’s not a film that dwells on providing easy answers to these ideas, instead settling into an emotionally compelling, small-scale family story. It feels like the kind of movie that would premiere at Sundance to great acclaim, the kind of movie that will pleasantly surprise audiences with a non-controversial thoughtful story. The kind of movie that will leave some in the audience in tears — but maybe not for the reason they expect.