It’s a simple tenet, too often ignored. The more specific a work of art, the more likely the piece resonates with a thoroughly enmeshed truthfulness that approaches the universal. A film doesn’t need to be autobiographical to qualify, nor is realism necessarily a component. The chief reason Black Panther stands as the strongest entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is director Ryan Coogler’s impassioned adherence to this guideline. The Farewell, a markedly different film, meets this standard, too, and not solely because writer-director Lulu Wang drew from her own family’s experience in shaping the story. The film is special and uniquely moving because it is defined by a cultural specificity that is presented without condescension, to either the characters or the audience.
In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American living in New York City, struggling to make her way as an aspiring writer as she edges out of young adulthood. Billi has a strained relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), so she draws a significant amount of emotional support from regular phone calls with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. When word comes back through family channels that the elderly woman has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s devastating to Billi, especially when she’s discouraged from attending a family reunion in China to effectively pay last respects, though it is done under the guise of a wedding. The family is opting not to share the diagnosis with the grandmother, under the premise that it’s a kinder course of action to keep her in the dark about the gravity of her illness. It’s thought that Billi will not be able to keep the secret. She attends anyway, and the film traces her experience in the country she left as a child and the tension she feels over the well-meaning but ethically debatable subterfuge.
Wang’s script is constructed with delicacy and care. The family dynamics are sketched in with just enough detail to give the actors room to explore, finding nuance in the restrained affection and verbal glancing blows. Every cast member responds marvelously, with Awkwafina and Shuzhen giving notably lived-in performances. Smartly, Wang shows all the tiny deceptions that flow through various human interactions, all chosen because sometimes proffering an untruth is the simplest course, harmless and more efficient. More than any expository lecture of Chinese cultural norms could be, this screenwriting choice provides the needed perspective.
Warm and wise, The Farewell is dynamic precisely because it doesn’t strain to achieve such a state, deploying histrionic speeches or cataclysmic reveals. If it sometimes feels a touch too sedate — especially in its relative lack of visual panache — that strikes me as a minor flaw, entirely forgivable because the eschewing of vivid dramatics is its own act of kindness. The film remains well clear of any sense of emotional cheapness or other easy exploitation of the scenario. In a lovely irony, a film about a grand, knotty lie succeeds because of its commitment to honesty.