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

This image provided by Higgins Design Studio shows an open Murphy bed. (Mentis Photography/Higgins Design Studio via AP)
Pandemic-era design solution from the past: the Murphy bed

The beds that emerge from a wall to instantly transform a living room into a bedroom date from more than a century ago.

R.J. Whitlow, co-owner of 5 Rights Brewery, has recently expanded to the neighboring shop, formerly Carr's Hardware. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
County craft breweries’ past lives: hardware store, jail

Most breweries in Snohomish County operate in spaces that formerly housed something far different — from boat builders to banks.

Red apples with leaves isolated over white background. Gala apple. Top view
Everything you never wanted to know about fruit tree pollination

If your trees are blooming and not setting fruit, the most likely culprit is poor pollination.

Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”
Great Plant Pick: Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”

If you love golden foliage, the golden Japanese cedar is for you. When planted against a dark green backdrop, it shines like a beacon.

Moving eyes add interest to an antique clock. This blinking-owl clock sold for $1,900 at a Morford's auction in 2021.
These antique clocks have shifty eyes that move with time

More modern moving-eye clocks include the Kit-Cat clock, a fixture in nurseries since 1932.

Heroes.jpg: Characters in the fantasy world in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center, running Jan. 28-Feb. 13, include (front row) Erin Smith as Lilith, Katelynn Carlson as Kaliope; (middle row) Marina Pierce as Tillius, Lucy Johnson as Agnes; (back row) Daniel Hanlon as Orcus.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Dungeons & Dragons collides with reality in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center in Marysville.

Caption: Stay-at-home parents work up to 126 hours a week. Their labor is valuable even without a paycheck.
A mother’s time is not ‘free’ — and they put in 126-hour workweeks

If you were to pay a stay-at-home mom or dad for their time, it would cost nearly $200,000 a year.

Linda Miller Nicholson from Fall City, Washington, holds up rainbow pasta she just made in the commercial kitchen at her Fall City home, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.  The rainbow wall behind her is in her backyard. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle TImes/TNS)
This King County woman’s rainbow pasta signals her values

Linda Miller Nicholson sculpts colorful noodles that reflect her personality and pro-LGBTQ+ pride.

CloZee performs during the second day of Summer Meltdown on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019 in Darrington, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The psychedelic fest Summer Meltdown is back — and in Monroe

The music and camping event is on for July 28-31, with a new venue along the Skykomish River.

Most Read