A Chinese family, played by (from left) Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong and Diana Lin, gathers in “The Farewell.” (A24)

A Chinese family, played by (from left) Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong and Diana Lin, gathers in “The Farewell.” (A24)

Restraint, Awkwafina’s performance hold ‘The Farewell’ together

This comedy, about a Chinese-American slacker visiting the old country, avoids becoming maudlin.

Awkwafina has the perfect posture for her character in “The Farewell”: slumped forward, her neck jutting out warily, her movements careful, as though navigating the line between two different worlds … neither of which she completely fits into.

The comedian (and “Crazy Rich Asians” star) plays Billi, the central role. Born in China but raised in New York, aimless in her career path, Billi abruptly travels back to the Old Country for awkward reasons.

Her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has received a terminal diagnosis, and may only have months to live. An understandable reason to visit.

But this trip has particular tension, because the family has decided not to tell Grandma about her prognosis. The pretext for Billi’s clan gathering in China is a hastily arranged marriage involving one of Billi’s cousins (a young man who looks none too convinced about his upcoming nuptials).

Writer-director Lulu Wang has a deck of useful dramatic points here. There’s the poignancy of a last goodbye, but also the questionable subterfuge of a collective lie.

Billi isn’t sure how she’s going to play this, but she shows up anyway. And what follows is a nicely modulated comedy, a movie that never deviates from its steady center.

That means there aren’t many crazy rich highs, but it means “The Farewell” doesn’t get maudlin, either. The handkerchiefs will be out, yet Wang knows how to keep the tears honestly earned.

She also knows where to put the key exchanges. A scene where Billi’s dad (veteran character actor Tzi Ma) and his brother (Jiang Yongbo) quietly explain the cultural differences that led them to keep the medical secret is loaded with dramatic punch — yet it comes in a dark, quiet room at the end of a long day.

Some of those cultural differences are less distinct. Swap out the specific dishes being served in the film’s copious scenes of eating, and the jokes about food etiquette could fit any ethnicity. Likewise, the figure of the pushy matriarch who drops anvil-sized hints about her granddaughter’s unmarried status is a staple of comedies from anywhere.

If those bits are somewhat generic, they still work. And “The Farewell” is so sure-footed in its tone that it gets away with the tried-and-true shtick.

What’s less familiar is Awkwafina’s performance; she doesn’t try to charm the audience, or grab for an easy laugh (restraint like this must be hard for any comedian). And special mention in the admirable cast should go to Diana Lin, a serene presence as Billi’s practical, slightly rueful mother.

She carries off one of the film’s finest moments, an anecdote about how America generously welcomed the family upon their arrival a quarter-century ago. Lots of things going on in that moment — including, yes, the sense that she’s describing a distant past — and it’s just one of the little heart-bombs that detonate along the way.

“The Farewell” (3 stars)

Lulu Wang’s carefully controlled comedy about a Chinese-American slacker (Awkwafina) visiting the old country when her grandmother receives a terminal diagnosis, which the family is keeping secret. The film’s overall restraint keeps the heart-tugging moments from becoming maudlin, and comedian Awkwafina’s performance holds it all together.

Rating: PG, for subject matter

Showing: Cinemark Lincoln Square, Bellevue

Talk to us

More in Life

A family walks through the Wintertide lights Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at Legion Park in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Wintertide Lights returns for the month of December in Everett

The free family event is open nightly at Evergreen Arboretum and Gardens in Legion Park.

Leslie Davis, left, and Lyndsay Lamb, stars of "Unsellable Houses." (Rachael Jones / HGTV)
‘Unsellable Houses’ seeks flippable Snohomish County homes for Season 5

Leslie Davis and Lyndsay Lamb are searching for homeowners for next season’s one-hour episodes, where houses go from stagnant to sold.

2024 Hyundai Kona Limited FWD (Hyundai)
2024 Hyundai Kona Limited FWD

The Hyundai Kona Limited has been updated for the 2024 model year, but thankfully, retains its quirkiness.

Early 20th century Puffy lamps don’t need to be on to brighten up a room

With three-dimensional designs painted on the shade, lamps like this don’t need darkness to provide decorative value.

Great Plant Pick: Heritage birch

also called white bark river birch, or betula… Continue reading

The 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness comes with raised ladder-type roof rails and Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires. (Subaru)
2024 Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness gives the compact more capability

Upgraded suspension, 9.3 inches of ground clearance and a reengineered drivetrain are among the changes.

The Vienna State Opera hosts performances in the evening and tours during the day. (Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Rick Steves’ Europe: Exploring the musical soul of Austria

In Vienna, there are always plenty of ways to enjoy great music … on any budget.

Della Terra, a Snohomish farm-to-table catering business, is offering a full Thanksgiving meal with hearty Pacific Northwest entrees, seasonal sides and a farmers market salad. (Joanna Monger Photography)
The comforting and important rituals of giving thanks

I hope you took some time this Thanksgiving, between helpings of turkey and mashed potatoes, to consider what you appreciate and value in your life.

Sisters Greta, Willow and Solana Gothard have been playing music together since childhood, expanding from early violin lessons to playing guitar, mandolin, djembe, bodhran and more alongside vocal harmonies. 

The new album “A Celtic Christmas” is the sisters’ 10th, featuring a selection of traditional carols rendered in the band’s signature, ethereal style.  (Knecht Creative)
Home for the holidays with the Gothard Sisters

The Edmonds trio brings tidings of Celtic comfort and joy with a new Christmas album and concert

Siblings Qingyun, left, and Ruoyun Li, 12 and 13, respectively, are together on campus at Everett Community College on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Everett, Washington. The two are taking a full course load at the community college this semester. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Siblings, age 12 and 13, are youngest students at EvCC campus

Qingyun Li was 11 when he scored a perfect 36 on the ACT test. His sister, Ruoyun, was one point away.

He had to clean his Airbnb. Can he get the cleaning fee back?

Tyson Love’s Airbnb is a mess. Worse, the company will only refund $14 of his rental fee, even though he bought cleaning supplies and cleaned the rental himself. Is that fair?

Top row (L-R): Thomas, Charley, Emmae, Bennett
Middle row (L-R):  Soliana, Ridayna, Stormie, Eli
Bottom row (L-R): Atlas, Madison, Madalyn, Berkeley
Jackson kindergarteners have hot takes on turkey, gratitude — and crab?

Students at the Everett elementary school shared all they know about Thanksgiving and what they’re thankful for.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.