Little white lies permeate “The Farewell,” in which Awkwafina delivers a breakout dramatic performance as a young woman caught up in a geographic, cultural and ethical tug-of-war.
Billi, Awkwafina’s 30-something character, lives in New York and is trying to make it as a writer; she frequently talks on the phone with her grandmother in China — whom she calls Nai Nai — for moral support and to touch base with the country of her birth. As “The Farewell” opens, Billi and Nai Nai chat easily, peppering their conversation with the evasions, feints and dodges everyone uses to smooth the conversational path, Billi fibbing about bumping into an old friend, Nai Nai insisting she’s at home when she’s actually in a hospital waiting room.
Neither wants the other one to worry, which is the prime motivating force in “The Farewell,” written and directed by Lulu Wang. Wang, who related the story on the radio program “This American Life,” has based the film on “an actual lie,” when her real-life Nai Nai was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and the family rallied around — not to support her, but to deceive her, telling her she was in perfect health and fast-tracking a grandchild’s wedding so that they would have one last happy gathering.
Perhaps because she’s so intimately familiar with the paradoxes at play, Wang balances the alternately madcap and melancholy contours of “The Farewell” with admirable assurance, channeling her own obvious ambivalence through Billi’s sometimes affecting, often hilarious mixed feelings.
At first, her parents insist she skip the wedding, because she is sure to give the game away: Having grown up in America, she’s prone to this country’s emotional transparency, a trait her stoic mother (the wonderful Diana Lin) considers indulgent and selfish. When Billi fetches up in Changchun, the northern city where “The Farewell” was filmed (and where the real story transpired), the game is afoot, with her extended family worried not just about Nai Nai’s failing health but about their Americanized cousin actually sharing her feelings and ruining the whole racket.
Although the framing device — and delicious-looking food — of “The Farewell” might remind some viewers of last year’s smash hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” Wang’s movie is even more reminiscent of Ang Lee’s early work, especially 1993’s “The Wedding Banquet,” which also addressed the tensions between tradition, assimilation and dishonesty in the name of filial duty. Anchored by a radiant performance by Shuzhen Zhao as the indomitably cheerful Nai Nai, “The Farewell” gracefully turns Billi’s own reservations on their respective ears, as the notion of who’s fooling whom comes increasingly into question, especially when it comes to her own fractured identity and unresolved loss.
Known mostly as a comic actress and YouTube star, Awkwafina delivers a muted, subtly expressive performance in “The Farewell,” which possesses a generous helping of laughs, but never at the expense of the rueful tenderness at its core, a tonal balance that is skillfully maintained by a wonderful ensemble of mostly Chinese actors. (Some of the film’s funniest moments belong to the actress Aoi Mizuhara, who is sublime as a bemused Japanese bride putting on a brave face for her future in-laws, despite not understanding a word they say.)
“The Farewell” pays delightful, insightful homage to the facades and pretenses nearly everyone adopts in the name of compassion. Not incidentally, at a time when nativist bullies and their enablers call for American citizens to “go back where they came from,” Wang and her film offer a perfectly eloquent, elegantly pluralistic retort. When each of us contains multitudes, “The Farewell” suggests, home is everywhere, or anywhere we happen to be.