The bittersweet drama "The Farewell" begins with a title card informing us that what we're about to see is "based on a true lie." Telling the story of one family's decision to keep their matriarch's terminal cancer diagnosis a secret from her, the film was inspired by writer-director Lulu Wang's actual family experience, a tale Wang first recounted for a 2016 episode of "This American Life."
Wang's stand-in for this lightly fictionalized recounting is Billi (Awkwafina), a 30-something struggling writer living in Manhattan. Billi's parents Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved from China when she was a young girl, though she maintains a close relationship with her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) -- whom she calls Nai Nai -- back in China.
When Nai Nai is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given as little as three months to live, Billi is conflicted about the family's decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her prognosis. Rather than break the news to her, the family decides to travel to her home in Changchun to stage a fake wedding between Billi's cousin (Chen Han) and his new Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) as a pretext for the whole extended family to gather and say their goodbyes to Nai Nai.
It seems this is a not uncommon practice in China, a way of allowing the sick family member to live out the remainder of their days in relative peace, while the rest of the family bears the emotional burden. Being raised toward a Westernized way of thinking, Billi struggles with her family's actions. The cross-cultural moral dilemma at the heart of the film is rooted in her anxieties at being a first generation Chinese-American and the uneasy the intersection between family, culture, and identity.
The immigrant experience often means having an identity split between two distant locations, ones that could equally be considered home. The film dramatizes Billi's internal, East-West conflict as she feels the push and pull of living between two cultures and juggling the occasionally mismatched value systems of each.
Mostly known for her comedic work thus far in her screen career, Awkwafina is wonderful in her first true leading role, delivering a much more somber performance than we've seen from her. As the family pushes Billi to hide her grief and put on a happy face, we see how the decision weighs on her. She's told repeatedly that having grown up in America, she just doesn't understand.
The actress finds a touching honesty and vulnerability in her character, even as Billi fights to keep her emotions bottled inside. She finds ways to express Billi's frustration and anger at the situation, and the difficulty of saying goodbye to someone who doesn't know that it's goodbye.
She also witnesses some behind-the-scenes absurdity, like when the family convinces the employees of the local copy store to alter Nai Nai's test results to describe her tumors as "benign shadows," though no one is able to articulate what exactly that's supposed to mean.
Wang tells her story in a way that's warm, sad, and sweet, but never feels heavy or overly sentimental. There's plenty of uncomfortable interactions with extended family, but Wang resists the urge to make the film a wacky family comedy, though there are small moments of humor. Many come from Aoi Mizuhara as the poor bride, who doesn't speak Chinese but whose wide-eyed looks of discomfort provide no shortage of sympathetic laughs as she's asked to navigate this minefield while pretending she's ready to leap into a marriage with a man she's only known for three months.
Wang has a way with character, layering the film with small details that tell us so much, even during moments when her characters struggle to say anything at all. The filmmaker is never particularly interested in using her film to state conclusively whether the family's decision to keep NaiNai's illness from her is right or wrong, but she does seek to make it clear why they choose to do so.
Exploring the complexities of cultural identity, "The Farewell" circulates with grief, love, regret, and guilt. It tells a warm, heartfelt, and often funny story about the bonds of family and the ways we work to stretch them as far as we can; across continents if we have to. It's also a lovely tribute to the wonder that is grandmothers; if there's one in your life, don't be surprised if you leave the theater wanting nothing more than to hug her at once.