‘The Farewell’ review: Awkwafina shines in ‘bonkers’ true story

Though Awkwafina’s acting career is so young it’s still using a pacifier, the major talent is already reinventing herself.
In just a few short years, the 31-year-old has gone from rapper to comedic powerhouse, and now, most powerfully, to indie darling in “The Farewell.” It’s one of the year’s sweetest films.

As a New Yorker named Billi, who returns to her birthplace in China when she learns her grandmother — Nai Nai — is dying of cancer, Awkwafina is a wallflower next to her breakout role as the explosive Peik Lin in “Crazy Rich Asians.” This character is introverted, lacks confidence and is frequently mopey. It’s a gem of a performance, textured and demonstrating remarkable versatility.

And it’s part of a bonkers true story.

When Nai Nai’s (Shuzhen Zhao) cancer is discovered, her family and doctors decide to keep it a secret from her, altering medical documents and assuring her everything is fine. If that sounds incredibly unethical, it’s because it is . . . in America. But it turns out that such deception is a common practice in China, in order to allow older loved ones to enjoy their final days to the fullest.

In an attempt to see Nai Nai a final time, without letting her know she’s sick, the clan stages a fake wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his girlfriend of just three months. The tale is an unlikely mix of calamity and soul.

Upon arrival, Billi is torn between Chinese traditions — which she has a deep, abiding respect for — and her outspoken American sensibilities. She wants so badly to tell Nai Nai the truth, and struggles to come to terms with cultural norms as her family obsesses over the fake nuptials. It would be an episode of “Benny Hill” if it wasn’t so moving.

It feels realistic because it’s based on the life of writer-director Lulu Wang, who expertly shoots China with great affection, neither glamorizing it nor making it look smoggy and hyperactive, as films often do. What you see is what it is. The family is also cast well, bringing to mind superbly in-sync, wacky-kin ensembles like that of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Each actor makes his or her mark without taking away from the whole. The funniest is Chen as Billi’s marrying cus.

Most of the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles, though it goes back and forth. But it’s a universal, well-told story any audience will adore.

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