Awkwafina has had a strange, yet amazing career trajectory. She started out as a YouTube star, which is where she got her stage name (she was born Nora Lum), and the audience she acquired there allowed her to make the transition into feature films. In 2016, she had a standout supporting role in NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING, and after that found a niche as comic relief in OCEAN'S 8 and CRAZY RICH ASIANS.
In 2019, however, her profile has totally changed. This past summer, she played the lead role in writer/director Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL, and it was such an incredible performance that she has a solid shot at earning her first Academy Award® nomination.
In the movie, Awkwafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-American writer who has lived with her parents in the United States for most of her life. She still maintains strong connections to her family in China, however, which makes it all the more devastating when she learns that her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. And what makes the situation even worse for Billi is the discovery of a Chinese custom in which the family doesn't tell the terminally ill person of their condition.
A fake wedding in China is concocted so that relatives from around the world can visit and see Nai Nai without revealing the secret, and despite being totally broke, Billi makes the trip as well. She initially wants to tell her grandmother everything, believing that the custom is wrong, but her views slowly begin to change through conversations with her extended family and gaining a larger understanding.
Crafting a wonderfully complex and fascinating emotional quandary, THE FAREWELL features a wonderful performance from Awkwafina that shows off her very real range as an actor. The film never stops her quirky, funny personality from emerging, as she creates many laugh-out-loud moments in the film, but it’s also impressive to see her handling the dramatic material with real weight and authenticity.
It’s certainly an Oscar®-nomination-worthy performance, but the big challenge that stands in Awkwafina’s path to glory is the simple fact that 2019 has featured many incredible turns that could wind up earning attention from the Academy. The list so far of serious contenders includes Renée Zellweger for JUDY, Scarlett Johansson for MARRIAGE STORY, Lupita Nyong’o for US, Jennifer Lopez for HUSTLERS and Cynthia Erivo for Harriet — and you’ll notice that including Awkwafina, that means there are more names than nomination slots.
Plus, there are still some highly anticipated performances that people haven’t seen yet, including Charlize Theron in BOMBSHELL, Alfre Woodard in CLEMENCY and Saoirse Ronan in LITTLE WOMEN.
At the end of the day, it’s all good news for audiences, as we are simply treated to excellent work from some of the best in their field, but at the same time, it would be fantastic to see Awkwafina properly celebrated for her exceptional turn in THE FAREWELL.
We'll find out if she has a chance to take home the gold statuette when the nominees are announced! Check back on the AMC Scene for Oscar news.