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The Farewell is one of 2019’s best movies

Lulu Wang’s low-key slice-of-life The Farewell debuted at Sundance earlier this year, and from the description in the program guide, it sounded like typical indie fare. “Troubled soul finds a renewed purpose in life after reconnecting with her roots” may be the most common indie premise — just edging out “hapless schmuck witnesses a crime” and “sensitive artist struggles to be heard.”

But The Farewell left Sundance audiences enraptured, and for good reason. The movie doesn’t have a twisty plot; and yet at nearly every turn, with nearly every choice Wang makes, The Farewell defies expectations.

At the start of the film, we meet a 30-ish, New York-based artist named Billi, who’s going through a rough stretch. The friend whose apartment she’s subletting needs her to move out. Her application for a Guggenheim fellowship has been denied. And just when things couldn’t seem much worse, her parents let her know that her beloved grandmother back in China — her Nai Nai — is dying of cancer. So Billi decides to do something drastic. She converts every asset she has into cash, and flies to China to say goodbye to her grandma — even though her mother and father have expressly asked her not to go.

Billi is played by Awkwafina, the comedian and rapper who’s been a social media superstar for the past several years, and a hilarious supporting player in movies like Crazy Rich Asians. Born Nora Lum (to a Chinese-American father and a Korean mother), Awkwafina is known for her raspy voice, her plucky underdog demeanor, and her frank commentary on race, gender and sexuality.

She also has a casually commanding screen presence, which Wang puts to good use in a role that’s unusual for

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