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Family Movie Review: The Farewell (PG)

The deeply intimate ‘The Farewell’ considers the healing power of a lie.

Kernel Rating: 4 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 98 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. This film adapts the real-life story, as aired on NPR, about a Chinese family who told a lie to their matriarch about her health. The film revolves around the grandmother’s cancer diagnosis, and we hear and see symptoms of her illness, including a persistent cough, and how it affects the family, who are overwhelmingly distressed by this news. Adults drink to drunkenness and smoke cigarettes; there are some sexually themed jokes, including one about pregnancy before marriage, and an attempt at romantic matchmaking; there is some infrequent cursing, and the phrase “stupid child” is used as a loving nickname.

By Roxana Hadadi

Are all lies inherently bad? That is the question raised in “The Farewell,” a film that effectively straddles the lines between comedy and drama and between American and Chinese cultures and builds a narrative that is simultaneous intimate and emotionally open.

In “The Farewell,” 30something Billi (Awkwafina, of “Ocean’s 8”) is pulled into a familial untruth when her great-aunt, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins decide to lie to Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health. The doctors have told the family Nai Nai has Stage 4 lung cancer; the family tells Nai Nai she’s fine, and that they’re coming back to China not to say goodbye to her, but to attend her grandson’s wedding.

TheFarewell1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewBilli, who was born in China but raised in the U.S. after her parents moved when she was 6 years old, is exceptionally close to Nai Nai, but she casually lies to her grandmother and her parents all the time—about what she’s wearing, if she’s dating, and her career progress. But this lie to Nai Nai about her health, which seems so much larger and so much more impactful, unsettles Billi. Prone to wearing her heart on her sleeve, she can’t seem to hide her emotions from Nai Nai—but that is exactly what concerns her parents, who didn’t want her to come back to China at all because they worried she would give their lie away.

After Billi arrives in China, the rest of “The Farewell” focuses not only on her shifting relationships with her parents, who are approaching Nai Nai’s health downturn in drastically different ways, but on her bond with Nai Nai, who vacillates between praising Billi for her independence and worrying that Billi will never fall in love. In all of these interactions, filmmaker Lulu Wang considers the contrast between the East and the West: between how the family decides as a group that it is more important to let Nai Nai believe the best than know the worst; between the choice to live in the United States instead of staying in China or moving somewhere else in the East, such as Japan; and between the mindset of the older generation, presented in Nai Nai, and the immigrant generation, presented in Billi’s parents, and in the first-generation American, presented in Billi.

The movie examines the subtle differences between these points of view in scenes with great emotional power—at familiar locations like family dinners and a wedding reception, and more specific ones to the Chinese experience, such as visiting a cemetery and observing an elaborate wedding-themed photoshoot. Awkwafina is our guide throughout all these moments, and she is exceptional here, more reserved than her work in “Ocean’s 8” and yet also more open. She has excellent chemistry with Zhao, and the two of them absolutely nail the bond between a grandmother and granddaughter, a relationship that has more wiggle room for honesty and affection than Billi’s with her parents.

“You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” Billi’s uncle tells her when she asks again why they are lying to Nai Nai, but “The Farewell” doesn’t solely prioritize his opinion about his mother. The film uses humor and nuance to make space for every family member’s reaction and for a variety of familial relationships, and how “The Farewell” balances questions about cultural heritage and the morality of honesty is immersive and lovely.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.  

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