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'The Farewell': Love Letter to a Chinese Grandma

Awkwafina breaks out as a dramatic star in a true-ish story of intergenerational bonding

Rating: PG

Run time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Stars: Awkwafina, Diana Lin, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao

Director/Writer: Lulu Wang

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One of the best genres of laugh-until-you-ugly-cry comedies is the extended family reunion movie: An entire clan gathers for a holiday, wedding or funeral, and all is revealed about what unites and divides it. Like August: Osage County, Home for the Holidays or The Wedding Banquet, Lulu Wang's crowd-pleasing Sundance hit The Farewell is an opportunity to reflect on the ways families both shape and warp us.

Inspired by an event in Wang's family history, the film begins in a crisis: A doctor diagnoses matriarch Nai-Nai (Shuzhen Zhao, 75) with stage 4 cancer back in Changchun, China. The phone lines heat up as her two grown sons in Japan and America conspire to keep the terminal truth hidden from their mom: She's got three months. Under the pretext of her nephew's sudden wedding back home, Nai-Nai's two sons and their wives and children gather to celebrate the nuptials and, possibly, bid goodbye to the mother and grandmother who holds them close across continents.

The audience surrogate in this adventure is the single, Chinese-born but comfortably American thirtysomething artist Billi (Awkwafina). With her career stalled and her darling distant relative at risk, Billi undergoes an identity crisis as she charges the flight on her credit card and races to her grandmother's side. That grandmother-granddaughter relationship, sustained via phone calls, is a missing piece of her puzzle. Whether Billi's aware of it or not, she can't go forward without making a space for it in her life.

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Billi's a truth teller whose face reveals every emotion, so keeping that big fat family lie is a challenge. But she's got lots of challenges, caught between cultures. Is Billi just one granddaughter among many, as the Chinese see her, or the ambitious American individualist whose dream of getting a Guggenheim fellowship and external validation eludes her?

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Awkwafina, memorable for her breakout comic roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, dials back the hilarity and dives deep into a complicated, often self-contradictory character — one that's rarely available to Asian American actresses. She's both relatable and frustrating, seeking an authentic life while navigating the falsehoods of daily existence. In the teasingly lovely scenes between Billi and her grandmother, Awkwafina has an awkward, warm-hearted confusion about who she is in the face of Nai-Nai, who lives in complete certainty about herself and the world around her. Their connection, as actresses and characters, is a beautiful thing.

Director Wang doesn't tinker with the successful family reunion formula. While the movie revolves around keeping a lie rather than scraping back to a hard-won truth that leaves the audience gasping, the result is the same. The action might take place largely in a distant country, but there's nothing foreign about the emotions: In The Farewell, the audience recognizes the complications of family life, the hilarity and heartbreak, and the larger truth that being a family is a process, not a conclusion, a verb, not a noun.

Watch: "The Farewell" director at AARP's Movies for Grownups Awards

Editor's note: This review, originally published July 11, 2019, was updated to add the Movies for Grownups Awards video.

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