By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As offbeat and unique as its star, “The Farewell” offers a lot of the shaggy-dog weirdness of a Jim Jarmusch film.
Said star, Awkwafina (born Nora Lum), is an actress and rapper who made her movie breakthrough last summer with the one-two punch of “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”
In “The Farewell – which opens with the cheeky title card, “Based on an actual lie” – she plays Billi. Chinese born, she moved with her parents to New York at age 6. Her strongest connection to the Old Country (as they say) is through her spry and spirited grandmother, Nai Nai.
Then, awful news: Nai Nai has terminal cancer. Rather than tell her, the family, in accordance with Chinese tradition, decides to create a little white lie as a way to say goodbye. Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend of three months are pressured into moving up their wedding. That way, everyone can see Nai Nai without saying why they’re seeing her.
What ensues is a tragicomedy of tradition, family and East/West culture clash. Billi’s family doesn’t want her to come. She’s too emotional, they insist; she’ll give it away.
But she attends anyway, despite some unkind remarks. “What can you do?” scolds her mother. “Look at her with that sad face?”
Director Lulu Wang based “The Farewell” on her own history and at the very end, she gives us an unexpected and upbeat coda. And like everything else in this unexpected and appealing film, it works. I can’t wait to see what she does next.