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Familiar appeal: ‘The Farewell’ is a loving, dynamic tale of extended family

Oh, this family. What a bunch.

We love this family. We laugh with this family. We weep with this family.

Awkwafina in a scene from “The Farewell.” (Courtesy of A24)

We recognize aspects of our own clan within the complicated, maddening, frustrating, head-butting, ridiculous, hilarious, terrible, wonderful, but most of all deeply loving dynamic of the extended family depicted in writer-director Lulu Wang’s semiautobiographical, absolutely beautiful and memorably lovely “The Farewell.”

This is a viewing experience to be treasured. It is one of the best films of 2019.

Although set and filmed mostly in Changchun, China, steeped in Chinese culture and traditions, and filled with scenes featuring specific turns of phrase and small touches sure to be unfamiliar to the average American viewer, “The Farewell” is likely to have you identifying with at least one of the major characters, and nodding in recognition at many a scene and turn of plot, regardless of your background.

Many will recognize the smart, but underachieving, adult daughter who is still treated like a teenager by her impossible-to-please mother; the goofy cousin who doesn’t say much, most likely because he doesn’t have much to say; and the beloved grandmother who is the undisputed boss of the family and speaks her mind at the dinner table.

Many a viewer is likely to think: “Been there, lived that.”

For all those universal elements, “The Farewell” is at its most charming and special in the Chinese-specific moments large and small, such as a discussion about the colloquialism “mei nu,” or “beautiful woman,” to describe all women, and the scene in which the family visits the grave of a departed loved one armed with many of the things he enjoyed in life, and they get into a heated discussion about whether to give him a cigarette, even though he’s dead.

“The Farewell” is “based on an actual lie,” as we’re told at the outset.

In 2013, Wang’s Nai Nai, or paternal grandmother, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, but the family agreed not to tell her, because they believed they should take on the burden of knowing she would soon die.

The actor-rapper Awkwafina, who owned every moment she was on screen as the comic relief sidekick in “Crazy Rich Asians,” is the fictional doppelganger for Wang: the Chinese-born, raised-in-America, 30ish Billi, who has remained close with her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) through constant phone conversations.

Billi is devastated by the news about Nai Nai and disagrees with the family’s decision not to tell Nai Nai about her condition, but her parents and other older relatives explain this decision is in keeping with traditional Chinese beliefs about family members taking on the heaviest of emotional burdens.

This is one of many instances in which Billi finds herself adrift between two worlds – a feeling exacerbated when she joins the extended family in China for her cousin’s hastily arranged wedding to his Japanese girlfriend, which is really just an excuse for everyone to get together to say goodbye to the unsuspecting Nai Nai.

Billi resents her parents for moving to America when she was a little girl, taking her away from her adored Nai Nai, and plunging her into a strange and overwhelming new world. But now that Billi’s back, she feels like a stranger in her homeland – apologizing every time she speaks because her Chinese isn’t good, constantly at odds with her mother, struggling with all her resolve not to break down in front of Nai Nai.

There’s lots of heavy stuff, to be sure, and there are times when “The Farewell” delivers powerful emotional blows, and we ache for Billi and what she’s going through – largely because Awkwafina’s performance is so raw and authentic, and in the moment.

Awkwafina, center, in a scene from “The Farewell.” (Courtesy of A24)

But “The Farewell” is also filled with sharply observed serio-comic touches. The wedding banquet features a steady parade of family members delivering terrible speeches, putting on awful musical performances, getting seriously drunk and/or breaking into crying jags. Even what is arguably the most intense scene in the movie feels just slightly absurd because there are a couple of people in the room who shouldn’t be there, but have no idea how to exit gracefully, so they just stand there, still as statues.

Awkwafina has that instantly identifiable rasp that makes her sound as if she spent last night cheering her lungs out at a concert. (I love her voice.) She has a unique way of delivering lines and an on-screen persona that pops whether she’s in a feature film or doing a TV commercial.

One could see how there could be a little bit of a risk in casting someone with such natural, fireworks-level star power as the lead in a poignant, smaller film such as this – especially because most of the broader, wackier moments are assigned to other characters. (Billi is essentially a background player in the aforementioned instant classic of a scene at the gravesite.)

From the moment Awkwafina-as-Billi appears on screen, that’s never a concern. She disappears into the character, and delivers one of the most effective, endearing and impactful performances of the year.

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