The premise behind writer and director Lulu Wang's wonderful film "The Farewell " might be a little hard to accept for some audiences. A family collectively decides not to tell their grandmother back that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has only three months to live. But wanting a chance to say goodbye, they arrange an elaborate ruse — a wedding — to get everyone together one last time.
Far-fetched? For Americans it is. But as we learn in the first frame, the film is "Based on an actual lie."
Yes, Wang has mined her own family's wild true story to create a film that, despite its hyper-specific premise and setting, is a universally relatable and heart-rending portrait of how looming death affects a family. It's not emotionally manipulative or even necessarily a tear-jerker, although it's not a bad idea to bring along tissues. "The Farewell" is a stoic and honest representation of a flawed and lovely family coming to terms with the inevitable.
Awkwafina plays the stand-in for Wang. Her character, Billi, is a 31-year-old New Yorker whose financial and career instability is starting to become more than just a temporary state of youth. She's having trouble paying the rent, her parents are reaching the point where they don't really want to help anymore, and she's just been rejected for a fellowship she was counting on. She's rudderless and drifting.
Then her parents inform her that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao, who will win your heart in an instant) is dying in China. They're not going to tell Nai Nai, and instead are going to China under the pretense of her cousin getting married, even though he's only been dating his girlfriend for a few months.
Billi, who has been raised in the United States since she was 6, is appalled they'd even think of keeping the diagnosis from Nai Nai. Her mother Jian (Diana Lin) flatly explains, "There's a saying in China: When you get cancer, you die." Part of what kills you, she believes, is the fear. Later, someone asks what the point would be in ruining Nai Nai's good mood with the truth. You might even find yourself buying into the idea at points. Maybe this is a more empathetic way.
And so a plane ride later, everyone is together at Nai Nai's, cooking, eating, quarreling and planning this very real fake wedding. Her sons both left China and have lived most of their adult lives elsewhere — Haiyan (Tzi Ma), Billi's father, in America, and the other in Japan. This family reunion is a long time coming. They haven't all been together in 25 years, and it's as comforting, fraught and melancholy as a reunion should be.
Awkwafina, who made a name for herself with larger-than-life comedic performances, is quiet, understated and heartbreaking as Billi, who is grappling with the idea of impermanence while her own life stands still. She has maintained a sweet and close relationship with Nai Nai despite their physical distance. She's also the most outwardly sentimental of the bunch, so much so that her parents don't even want her to come to China to say goodbye.
The film is a heady, gentle and emotional journey, but Wang also packs the frame with layered conversation and funny background action. She makes the family dynamics feel universally familiar while also presenting an authentic portrait of China and Chinese families.
This is Wang's second feature. Her first, "Posthumous," was never released theatrically. But that fate is unlikely to befall her again after such an assured statement as "The Farewell." She is a superb writer and director and a name worth knowing.
"The Farewell," an A24 release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic material, brief language and some smoking." Running time: 98 minutes. Four stars out of four.