Billi (Awkwafina) discovers that her paternal grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying, but her father (Tzi Ma) and her mother (Diana Lin) have decided to keep the truth of her condition a secret, and conspires with the extended family to host a wedding in China as an excuse to bring the family together.
Looking at movies in recent years that are based on the immigrant experience, the connecting factor always seem to centre on how the nature of home shifts when you leave. For example, John Crowley's adaptation of 'Brooklyn' brilliantly followed how Saoirse Ronan's character changes when she arrives home from New York, and learns that it no longer is the same for her. This is true of anyone who's had to leave behind their home country, and that bittersweet realisation is what informs the heart of 'The Farewell'.
Based on writer / director Lulu Wang's own experiences, 'The Farewell' positions itself as a family dramedy, with the oddness of Chinese culture - at least, to Western experiences - informing some of the humour. Like Billi, Awkwafina's character, the audience is aghast at the idea of hiding a medical condition from someone. Yet in China, it's not only common, but considered the correct thing to do. Grappling with this lie, and the hilarity of the wedding preparations - even though the couple getting married have been dating for three months - works beautifully together.
Like so many of the best comedy-dramas of this kind, zeroing in on a culture, time or place eventually allows everyone to draw their own connection with it. The manner in which Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen interact with each other is so authentic, so genuine, that you'd actually believe that they're grandmother and granddaughter. Likewise, Diana Lin's steely performance as the mother, who herself has her own dynamic with her mother-in-law, comes from such a real place that you've either seen something similar in your life, or you've experienced it yourself.
The supporting cast, including Tzi Ma and Jiang Yongbo as the two sons of the grandmother, are given their moment to shine, but really, the movie rests on Awkwafina and Zhao Shushen - and both women are more than capable of carrying it together. The natural, unfiltered comedy that bubbles up between them can't help but leave a smile on your face. One scene, in particular, sees the grandmother trying to play matchmaker - with the doctor who's treating her illness.
Lulu Wang's sense of style and pacing knits all these moments together, and there's a real tenderness with how it arranges itself on screen. The camera angles take in the background only briefly, instead focusing in on the lights, shadows and the dialogue between the characters. None of the scenes ever feel like they're forced, and the flow from beginning to end works with such a grace that it really does show how solid the writing is throughout.
As sweet and affectionate a story as you can get, 'The Farewell' is a heartwarming, funny tale of family, duty and the softest lies we tell one another.