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The Farewell ***1/2

Wistful, perceptive and bracingly unsentimental, Lulu Wang's winning dramedy, inspired by her own family, finds that the lies we tell our loved ones to shield them from pain is something that knows no national borders. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Movies about dysfunctional families tend to lean toward one of two directions: the warm and fuzzy ones that make you appreciate your relatives, warts and all, and the more ruthless dissections that portray domestic gatherings as emotional minefields where no one gets away unharmed. It takes a skilled hand to tell a story that manages to strike a balance between both sensibilities.

Say hello, then, to “The Farewell,” which pulls off this feat with beautifully observed candor, formal rigor and a reliable bullcrap meter.

Writer-director Lulu Wang's compact gem, inspired by her own clan, features a pretty large cast but wisely keeps its scope narrow, which allows it to effectively dig into the cultural divide that shapes its premise.

The movie centers on Billi, a New York City-based aspiring writer who came to the U.S. from China as a child. Life isn't exactly going well for our hapless protagonist, played with clear-eyed resolve by Awkwafina. That writing grant that she was up for did not come through, but her perpetual grimace suggests the source of her unhappiness goes beyond her professional setbacks.

Then she finds out Nai Nai, her beloved grandma, is dying of lung cancer.

But it gets worse. In keeping with tradition, her family has agreed to withhold the terminal prognosis from Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou). Convinced the end is near, loved ones have organized a wedding for Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen), who is dating a Japanese woman but is nowhere near happily-ever-after terms with her. That way, the nuptials can double as an opportunity to say goodbye to the feisty matriarch.

Billi's parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (the prolific Tzi Ma), also Big Apple residents, prepare for the long trip and ask their daughter to stay behind, since they don't trust her to withhold her emotions enough to preserve the façade. Much like the rest of “The Farewell,” their scenes together work as a reality check. Reproaches, nagging and bickering conceal a fierce bond that serves as a glue that holds together a slim narrative.

Of course, nobody expects someone as headstrong as Billi to stay behind while her parents fly away to the motherland, so off she goes after them. The bicultural tale that follows possesses that deft mix of laughs and pathos that made Ang Lee's “Father Knows Best” trilogy from the 1990s so special, as well as the gently bittersweet work of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Still Walking,” “Shoplifters”). I also detected a coolly unassuming eye for composition reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's work.

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“The Farewell” may be an ode to the lies that bind, but at its core it's a quest for personal truth, and how one's elders assist in reaching that often elusive goal. The film is at its most captivating when depicting the conversations between Billi and Nai Nai, specifically how the latter doesn't prevent an adherence to decorum from doling out hard-hitting advice. The irony, Wang suggests, is that the character most in the dark about what is going on is the one who sees things most clearly. Zhou, who is the sister of the real-life Nai Nai, is a natural. The camera can't get enough of her.

Once the film moves to China, “The Farewell” becomes more of a comedy of manners. The laughs are at times surprisingly broad, such as when Nai Nai confronts the wedding banquet venue of skimping on the menu, or when showing off Ellen, the family's singing dog. But the crowd-pleasing flourishes don't dilute its no-nonsense portrait of the fissures that threaten to alienate those nearest and dearest to us.

What lingers is not just Wang's wisdom and ear for lacerating dialogue, but how her compositions convey what the characters are feeling without the need to say a word. Billi is often seen alone in public and private spaces, surrounded by empty spaces, whether it's in the middle of a busy city street or in the quiet desolation of her hotel room. (Kudos to cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano.) A family reunion only underscores how every member of this family is embarking on their own journey, with mortality very much at the forefront.

If there is one shortcoming here, it's actually Billi herself. Awkwafina displays a wider range than she has before, and she handles the more serious moments as well as one could wish for. Still, the character feels too much like a blank slate, defined mostly by her family issues and disillusionment with developing her craft. Like Billi, Wang came to the U.S. when she was little. (Unlike, Billi, she grew up in South Florida.) With such a fascinating background, one would have expected her protagonist to be less of an empty vessel.

But even if “The Farewell” could have used a stronger anchor at its center, as an ensemble piece it's a deeply satisfying gallery of good-natured jabs that set familial malaise and cultural assimilation in its crosshairs. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this powerful and often delightful film becomes the most life-affirming I've seen this year. It's a keeper.