Sometimes, a movie just grabs hold of your heart and settles there. Such is the case with Lulu Wang’s beautiful “The Farewell,” a semiautobiographical drama/comedy (or comedy/drama; they’re so perfectly intertwined it’s hard to say which should come first) that begins with the onscreen words “Based on an Actual Lie.” Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling artist in Brooklyn, learns that her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), back in China, has been diagnosed with a fatal illness — and that the extended family has decided not to tell her. Hurrying overseas for what might be her last visit with Nai Nai, Billi reluctantly joins in the deception, trying to pretend that everything’s fine. “No matter how sad you feel, you cannot tell her,” warns an uncle.
“The Farewell” immerses us in a family; sweeping us into their embrace, their quirks, their factions (Billi and her parents, who immigrated to America when Billi was a small child, are to an extent outsiders), their food, their stories. At the center of this whirl of aunties and uncles and cousins is bossy, beloved Nai Nai, who greets a trying-to-hold-it-together Billi with “You’re not that skinny” and enjoys stage-managing everyone’s business; she’s so busy holding court she doesn’t seem to notice that nearly everyone’s eyes are wet. You can look at this family and see, whoever you are, a warm shadow of your own. Wang has, through a portrait of a very specific clan (at one point, they slowly march toward the camera, like a sad army), crafted a universal story of family love.
And the film’s silken threads — it’s shot in soft blues and grays and gentle light, with an ongoing theme of birds — are bound together by Awkwafina’s quiet, soulful performance, miles from her comedic turns in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s Eight.” Speaking in that unmistakable voice — it sounds like rust grew on it — but more often remaining silent, Billi gazes at Nai Nai like she’s guarding something precious. This young woman, for whom life so far hasn’t quite worked out as she’d like, sees her grandmother as an anchor, without whom she’ll be adrift. How can she say goodbye without saying goodbye? Awkwafina lets us see Billi’s pain through her posture, through her deadpan-tinged-with-mourning expression, through the sadness in her silent, needle-sharp gaze.
All this sounds potentially depressing, but “The Farewell” is so unexpectedly and deliciously funny that watching it feels like a tonic — an immersion in love and art. By the time “The Farewell” hands us its final gift — well, I wished I had a grandma to call. It’s a film that pulls off a quiet miracle: it breaks your heart, and leaves you happy.
★★★★ “The Farewell,” with Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen. Written and directed by Lulu Wang. 98 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles where necessary. Opens July 19 at multiple theaters.