In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.