How far can you get from home before it becomes unrecognizable — or before it’s you who does? Despite its melancholy title and concerns (the passing of our elders, what’s gained and lost by diaspora), “The Farewell” is a warm embrace of a human comedy. It has been written and directed like a homecoming by the Chinese-American filmmaker (and Boston College alumna)Lulu Wang, and it features a lovely and unaffected central performance by Awkwafina, an actress better known for her raucous comedic roles in films like “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Wang keeps the story close to her heart, basing it on events in her own family and casting her star as Billi, a Chinese-American millennial navigating life in Manhattan. Like most New Yorkers, Billi is from Elsewhere but has remade herself comfortably and proudly as a cosmopolitan. The quiet joke of “The Farewell,” is that when it comes to the unstated customs of Chinese families, she has made herself into a foreigner and a naïf.
One of those customs, apparently, is not telling one’s grandmother that she has a fatal illness. Billi is heartbroken to hear that her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), far away in Changchun, in northeastern China, has terminal cancer and months to live, but she’s even more shocked that the rest of the extended family is hiding the diagnosis from the old lady. To add insult to injury, they’re rushing a wedding of a cousin as an excuse to gather one last time in China.
Billi’s father, Haiyan (the sly, reliable Tzi Ma), and mother, Jian (Diana Lin), are flying to Changchun to bid farewell to his mother but they urge Billi to stay home — she can’t hide her emotions, she’d cry, she’d give the game away. She’s become too American, in other words, which only makes her hop on a plane determined to visit this beloved anchor of her family and rediscover her place in the clan.
“The Farewell” deals in grave matters, and Awkwafina gives a muted, observant performance (only mildly surprising coming from a rapper-comedian who first made a splash with a 2012 music video titled “My Vag”). The surprise, then, is how funny the movie is and how much energy it takes from the unquenchable Nai Nai herself. The grandmother lives in a high-rise apartment (the old home that Billi remembers having long since been bulldozed to make way for the new China), has a provisional relationship with an elderly widower, and is delighted to have a wedding to plan and caterers to boss around. Even her morning exercises are forceful in ways her granddaughter can’t match.
Wang is wise to the ways of far-flung families, how people change to conform to the places they live, and how humans try to fool others but are always better at fooling themselves. The father’s older brother has brought up his family in Japan, and his son is marrying a Japanese woman who doesn’t speak Mandarin; for her, the cultural barrier is almost as impermeable as the language barrier. The two brothers are both secret softies who can barely hide their grief; it’s the women in this family — and, by implication, in life — who understand the rules and are best equipped to cope with calamity.
Billi’s confusion is ours, of course: Why hide a person’s illness from her? Doesn’t she deserve knowledge and control over her life and death? Shouldn’t grief be expressed rather than repressed? “The Farewell” gently responds that maybe a person’s final days should be filled with joy rather than worry, that individuality might be overrated, that family is the safety net that catches us all. Like her heroine, Wang straddles the fence and argues from either side of it; like her, the movie is profoundly Chinese-American, speaking to both audiences and able to be enjoyed by both. It ends, as all good family films should, with a wedding reception, some emotionally messy karaoke, and a renewed appreciation for the homes we carry inside ourselves, no matter how far we stray.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang. Starring Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhou, Tzi Ma. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 98 minutes. PG (thematic material, brief language, some smoking). In English and Mandarin, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.