When Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American returning to Changchun for the first time since childhood, checks into her hotel, the bellhop wants to know which she likes better, China or America. "It's just different," she responds to the overeager hotel worker. That cultural difference – and how ultimately narrow that difference really is – is at the heart of The Farewell, a mostly autobiographical film from writer-director Lulu Wang.
Billi's grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, but, as Billi's mother, Jian (Diana Lin), tells her, "Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die." She's not talking about the disease itself, but rather the belief that the burden of knowing that one is terminally ill removes the joy from what time they might have left. So Billi's family decides to return home to see Nai Nai under the pretense of a wedding between Billi's cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese girlfriend (of three months), Aiko (the wonderfully awkward Han Chen and Aoi Mizuhara).
Billi struggles with the nondisclosure policy of the family, particularly since she and Nai Nai are very close. But as her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), and uncle, Haibin (Yongbo Jiang), stress to her, this is just how things are done in China. Rather than burden the terminally ill with the awareness that they're dying, the family shares the burden for them. That burden drives her father and uncle to drink heavily – something that it's implied has been a problem for Haiyan in the past, though that plotline remains mostly unexplored.
A lot of buzz has been circulating around the performance of Awkwafina (neé Nora Lum) as Billi, and it's deserved. She rose to notoriety as a humorous rapper before branching out into acting (most notably in supporting roles in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians), and she's been viewed as primarily a comic actress. In The Farewell, her performance as Billi is much more nuanced. She's already going through a rough patch when she gets the news about Nai Nai, and she struggles to make sense of the situation while being forced to hide her real emotions. She's funny, but it's a natural kind of humor instead of being overly jokey.
Wang goes for a very understated and naturalistic tone throughout most the film, but not a scene is squandered. From the big welcome-home dinner when the family arrives in Changchun to Nai Nai teaching Billi tai chi – or a hilarious visit by the family to the memorial of Nai Nai's deceased husband – every moment gives us a clearer view of these characters and how they operate as a family. And despite the big ethical question looming over the family, how they act is the same as any other family. There are squabbles, white lies, jokes, frustrations and rivalries. But the love the family has for each other shines through it all, and it's likely you'll find yourself comparing them to your own family.
Now go call your grandma. She'd love to hear from you.