Nominated for Nothing: Why The Farewell didn’t fare well with the Academy
They’re destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our hearts throughout 2019. Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Oscars ceremony, EW is breaking down the year’s best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: When writer-director Lulu Wang first started taking The Farewell — based on her own experience — to producers, she kept getting feedback to turn the sincere family dramedy into a broad comedy. Rather than delivering an inauthentic version of her personal history, she stepped away from trying to make a feature and wound up sharing the tale on an episode of This American Life — where the right producers heard it and were inspired to help her make exactly the movie she wanted to.
Awkwafina stars as Billi, a young Chinese American woman struggling to find her way in New York when she finds out that her beloved Chinese grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. In adherence with Chinese custom, Billi’s family conceals the bad news from Nai Nai herself; to provide themselves with an excuse to gather together in China one last time and say goodbye to the oblivious, ailing matriarch, they hastily plan a wedding for Billi’s cousin. Once in Changchun, Billi struggles to keep the secret, the values and customs of her American upbringing at odds with those of her Chinese heritage.
The film premiered at Sundance in January, where it collected rave reviews and landed a distribution deal with taste-making A24 (who had an excellent year all around, with horror smash Midsommar and another ultimately disappointed awards-hopeful Uncut Gems) for around $6 million. It hit theaters over the summer and went on to earn $17.6 million, as well as a handful of lead-up accolades for its writer-director and leading lady in particular.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Indies from little-known second-time filmmakers are always a tough sell. But hey, you say, Whiplash was one of those! And right you are, so allow us to add: Indies from little-known women of color second-time filmmakers, starring a woman of color and unfolding primarily in another language, are a particularly tough sell. A summer release date didn’t help, and the Academy also loves high-drama drama — where are their beloved histrionics in this movie about a great group effort to show restraint?
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: The Academy has some catching up to do with Hollywood, which in turn has a lot of catching up to do with the human race, but the industry is finally — finally — opening itself up, the tiniest bit more, to artists other than white men.The Farewell will be remembered not only as another step toward greater Asian-American representation onscreen, for which 2018’s smash Crazy Rich Asians was a watershed release, but also as a breakout moment for both Awkwafina and Wang, both major talents who are now poised to launch their careers to new heights.
Awkwafina, previously known as a comedic actress and rapper, made her dramatic range clear to the world with her performance in The Farewell (for which she was also named one of EW’s 2019 Entertainers of the Year); her various projects in development include a Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid. Wang, whose profile has risen by an even greater margin than her leading lady, has already announced her third feature and a star-studded TV project in the works.
The film will also be remembered for having pierced the hearts of all its viewers who have ever loved a wonderful grandmother, or occupied that strange place of pre-grieving that comes with a terminal diagnosis, or not known what they’re doing next in their life. But above all, it speaks directly to the experience of so many immigrants who belong to two different places, which can feel like belonging to neither of them. For being relevant in this regard to such an enormous swath of the population, it’s remarkable that there have been so few films, relatively speaking, that address the contemporary American experience in this way — and despite taking place primarily in China and being spoken largely in Mandarin, the film is deeply, distinctly American.
Nobody says it better than Wang herself: “It means so much to receive this honor from AFI, the AMERICAN Film Institute,” the filmmaker tweeted when AFI named the film one of its top 10 of the year. “To recognize @thefarewell as an American film is to recognize what it is to be American in 2019. Onwards.”
The Academy has been making efforts to diversify its membership, but change won’t happen overnight. Let the organization play catch-up (and maybe learn how to use Twitter). To everyone else: Onward.