Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a festival-goers’ dream, a funny, wrenching, personal, profound, pretty damn perfect film. And it’s also 2019’s first can’t miss feature. The Farewell was also my introduction to this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And while other entrants came close, nothing ultimately eclipsed that tear streaked first screening of the trip.
The Farewell is based on a true story, or rather, a true lie. A lie Wang’s family told to their aging matriarch. Or if not a lie, at least the aggressive denial of a devastating truth: her cancer diagnosis. As writer and director, Wang draws on her own experiences to realize a tale that bridges cultures and generations. And she taps Awkwafina to channel her experiences to the screen. For her part, Awkwafina delivers her finest turn to date. In a Q&A, Wang revealed that to achieve that end, she had only to challenge her star to do less, to trust her natural expressions and emotiveness to carry the emotional weight.
Which sounds simple enough, until you take a beat to consider what that means in the context of this picture. Imagine knowing your grandparent is going to die — and not being able to tell them. Now imagine that your family whips up a fake wedding to give everyone a chance to say goodbye, without saying goodbye. Imagine saying “see you soon,” when you know you won’t. That’s the devastating conundrum Awkwafina inhabits at the center of The Farewell. She does it beautifully, but it’s only part of the story.
Here too, and in agonizing detail, are family roles and culture clashes and myriad pangs of the heart. The sharp ache of unbridled laughter and the unspeakable relief of heaving sobs. You’ll feel them both in The Farewell, and quite a lot more besides. You’ll also meet a family a lot like yours. Complicated in unforeseeable ways, locked together, binded by love and sorrow. Connected. Even when they strain not to be. There’s a poetry in that that’s as beautiful as the architecture — from Wang’s grandmother’s actual village — that colors the backdrop of the very big lie that frames this wonderfully, painfully human story.
The Farewell will tap into whatever it is that makes us ugly cry with a Claire Danes level of ferocity and it won’t let go, but it’ll wake up your soul like taking a bite of a long-forgotten childhood treat that’s just like grandma used to make it.
A24 acquired the rights to The Farewell at Sundance and is slated to release the film on July 12.
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Runtime: 1h 38min
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Main Image Credit: Courtesy Sundance Film Festival