“Based on an actual lie” is writer-director Lulu Wang’s way of introducing her (actually true) story; a sly title card to qualify the bittersweet dramedy of deception that follows. Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina finds her first real star vehicle as Billi, a wry New Yorker with a raspy laugh and a nose ring who regularly dodges her own parents’ persistent questions about her future, but stays faithfully in touch with her grandmother back in China.
When she finds out that her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has stage-four cancer though, Billi balks at the family’s plan to keep the diagnosis a secret — even as she decides to crash the quickie wedding they’ve engineered between her cousin and his new Japanese girlfriend as a pretext to bring everyone back together.
Wang’s story outline shares the familiar contours of other immigrant tales: the Babel tower of half-spoken languages; the ties that bind across oceans, and the physical and cultural gaps that can still break them.
But Farewell also has the freshness of her own distinct voice, a dry humor and low-key melancholy that infuses even the most quotidian scenes, from a visit to Billi’s late grandfather’s grave, where the group squabbles over offerings — should they peel the oranges before they place them on his tombstone? Does he want one more cigarette, or did he quit before the end? — to a kitschy prewedding photo shoot that plays out in the background of a serious conversation like a surreal silent comedy.
On screen, Awkwafina can feel more like a personality than an actress; still, she finds something appealingly honest and vulnerable in Billi — who may always hate the lie, but finally begins to let it open her up to bigger, better truths. B+