'The Farewell' shows off Awkwafina and finds truths in a lie

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Awkwafina (center) in 'The Farewell'

(CNN)"The Farewell" will inevitably inspire references to "Crazy Rich Asians," featuring a predominantly Asian cast, a wedding, lots of big mouth-watering meals and Awkwafina. The similarities, however, pretty much end there, in a small, melancholy movie that explores cultural differences and dealing with death in an utterly charming, understated manner.

While Awkwafina played the ebullient best pal in the earlier film, here she's elevated to the lead as Billi, a slightly lost 20-something, still relying on her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) while living the life of a struggling artist in New York. The whole family, meanwhile, is dealt a blow when they discover that Billi's grandmother , who still lives in China, has received a terminal diagnosis.
Instead of telling her the truth, the family seizes on what seems like an outlandish scheme -- fabricating a wedding between Billi's cousin and his girlfriend in order to create an excuse for everyone to journey home and bid grandma farewell. Billi, notably, is initially left off the invitation list, with her parents thinking she'll be unable to carry off the ruse.
    At first, it all seems like a ridiculous amount of trouble. But writer-director Lulu Wang -- adapting a personal story she told previously on NPR's "This American Life" -- uses the scenario to engage in a thoughtful rumination on dealing with bad news, and what's really gained by making somebody unhappy for what time he or she has left, shifting the burden and discomfort to those around them.
    It doesn't help, alas, that grandma is both suspicious of the wedding (the couple hasn't been dating that long) and immediately asserts control over the whole process, which will yield a lot of knowing smiles, almost certainly, no matter one's cultural background.
    In the process, "The Farewell" says a whole lot about grief, guilt and determining what's important in life, while still providing its share of laughs. Those scenes include a hotel employee just dying to hear Billi -- who constantly apologizes for how poor her Mandarin is -- hold forth on how fabulous life in the United States must be.
    The performances are terrific, with Awkwafina exhibiting a more dramatic side, Shuzhen Zhao stealing every scene she's in as Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandma) and Ma wrestling with old demons dredged up by the prospect of losing his mom.
    By the end, which is probably the film's weakest part, much of the audience will no doubt be internally debating where they stand on the whole "Tell them/don't" debate, as well as thinking about reaching out to an elderly relative who might be overdue for a call.
    Where "Crazy Rich Asians" marked a commercial breakthrough, "The Farewell" (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival) is clearly being positioned as counter-programming for those seeking something without superheroes, lions or car chases during the summer. Beyond that, the movie's slogan, "Based on an actual lie," is perhaps uniquely attuned to our times.
      From that perspective, it's a small movie, but one -- no lie -- with an enviably big heart.
      "The Farewell" premieres July 12 in the US. It's rated PG.