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.