The Farewell

The Farewell ★★★★

I'm happy to have seen this one with my grandma. The Farewell is, if nothing, a testament to the power of grandmas. Grandmas are very good.

"Twenty-something person goes home to reckon with their family history" is a well-worn (read: tired) subgenre of indie film, but The Farewell manages to set itself apart from the pack through sheer specificity. Lulu Wang took this story from her life and it shows; the cultural tensions and familial dynamics at play all have the ring of truth that can only result from lived experience.

I give The Farewell a lot of credit for avoiding the easy traps here. Family indies will often populate themselves with over-the-top "types" instead of real people. You know the types I'm talking about — the pothead cousin, the inappropriate grandma, the douchey rich uncle. They are, mercifully, not to be found here. Billie's family contains authentic personalities that clash in ways that feel believable rather than manufactured.

The other trap it avoids is sentimentality. I won't spoil how this movie plays out, but I fully expected it to head in a more overtly tear-jerking direction than it ultimately does. That level of restraint is admirable considering the subject matter. 99% of filmmakers would milk a movie about a dying grandma for all the tears it's worth. The Farewell got my tears, but in a decidedly understated way that felt earned.

I realize I'm complimenting this movie more for what it doesn't do than what it actually does, so I'll talk about a couple of choices I liked. Awkwafina (is that still what we're calling her?) is perfect here, remaining low key while successfully conveying the complex tangle of emotions Billie is constantly working through. Wang and her cinematographer land on some great compositions; the cemetary scene in particular is absolutely beautiful.

One last thing: I always appreciate a movie that's brave enough to not give us a villain. The Farewell addresses the cultural differences between East and West without slipping into didacticism. It would have been easy, from an American's perspective, to present the practice of keeping a loved one in the dark about a cancer diagnosis as unnecessarily cruel. By the end, though, I felt less judgmental of Billie's family's decision than I did in the beginning, and I think she does too.

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