I had supposed (and was even prepared not to be annoyed by it) that The Farewell was going to turn out to be overhyped, if only because the hype has been so damn loud. And this is only a tiny bit true. It has, however, been incorrectly hyped. To judge from many of the reviews, you'd be forgiven for thinking the movie only had three things: Lulu Wang's script, and Awkwafina and Zhou Shuzhen's performances. Turns out that Wang is an even better director than she is a writer: for all that you'd never know the film had any visual aesthetic at all from the buzz, it has a quite a subtle and cunning style. Not to mention that Wang is tremendous with her actors, of whom those two women are merely the first among equals: the film has a pretty decent-sized ensemble, and they're all served well by a director who routinely allows them to find their way through group shots at a calm, steady rhythm between beats (and they're given even more ample breathing room by editors Matt Friedman and Michael Taylor). There's something wonderful about a filmmaker who's so willing to still her film for us to just observe actors inhabiting their characters without necessarily doing anything, and though this generosity feeds into The Farewell's single biggest problem - it is completely uninterested in pacing, and feels considerably longer than its 98 minutes - it's gratifying to stumble into a movie operating at the scale of people.

The characters are, make no mistake, the focus of the film, but Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano aren't content to leave us with the flat canned theater that I somewhat anticipated. In fact, The Farewell is almost weird-looking in its unusual application of style. The compositions are dominated by two characteristics: they are usually centered in the anamorphic widescreen frame, and the people within them are frequently kept very low in the frame, with almost dizzying amounts of headroom gaping above them. This results in a film with a simply massive amount of negative space, most of swimming around Awkwafina's Billi, an American citizen who emigrated from China as a child with her parents, and has lost most of her cultural connections to the old country, with a subpar command of Mandarin and a limited handle on the customs of her family who stayed behind. Traveling back to Changchun for the first family reunion in a quarter-century leaves her stranded between worlds, and a sense of being claustrophobically alone, as well as a feeling of being hopelessly, obviously on display, are visually literalised just as neat as you please by all those awkwardly airy, center-punched frames. Meanwhile, the group shots do a fantastic job of allowing her into the family circle but always conspicuous, either at the edges or uncomfortably centered.

The script to which this wonderfully simple, deeply affecting visual motif is in service is an autobiographical story, and it feels it: not one scene goes by that isn't dripping with specificity. The Farewell threads a tight needle, being at once about emotions universal to anybody with a family while also being about, not just the immigrant experience nor even just the Chinese-American experience but about this very particular family in this very particular city. Which is the only way any halfway decent piece of "universal" art ever gets made. In this case, Billi's beloved grandmother (Zhou) has just been given a fatal diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, and in keeping with custom, her family, starting with her little sister, Billi's aunt (Lu Hong) will not be sharing this information with her, so as to keep her final months free of unpleasantness and terror at the looming prospect of death. They still want to say goodbye, though, so they've concocted a fake wedding, in which Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) will "marry" his new Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Mizuhara Aoi). It's the perfect excuse for Billi's parents Haiyan (Ma Tzi) and Jian (Diana Lin) to return from America, and Haiyan's brother Haibin to return from Japan, and there's only one problem: Billi is stupefied by the whole thing, finding the very idea of hiding a sick woman's illness from her to be disgusting and immoral, which makes it an open question whether she'll be able to get through the whole trip (which she makes against the rest of the family's wishes) without spilling the beans.

There's an annoying shortcoming with how Wang has approached this story, and since I don't want to belabor my criticisms of a very lovely, deeply felt movie, I'll just deal with it now. Billi's trip to Changchun triggers two very distinct emotional journeys: one is her abiding love for her grandmother, and her barely-contained frustration at not being able to properly say "goodbye". The other is her thwarted nostalgia for the country she left behind, and her difficulties in balancing her identity between the two nations that ought to feel like home. These are both fine threads to tug on, but they're not the same thread, and The Farewell isn't especially good at switching between them: typically, when the family drama is put on hold for sequences of Billi staring at the rhythms of Chinese life, this happens less because of any sort of elegant transition than because the film all but clears its throat to declare "okay, we're doing this now". There's some great material here: Wang and Solano are up to terrific work filming the colors and textures of Changchun, which has a very intense presence, belying the film's diffuse color palette. It's just that it hurts the film's momentum, and for a story already being told in a very unhurried, rhythmic way, slowing down the momentum is a dubious choice.

Regardless, we always end up, in short order, returning to that sprawling family, and if it is, in truth, anchored around Awkwafina and Zhou delicately teasing out the delicate intimacy their characters feel around each other, this shouldn't distract us from the perfect little small work happening in every scene, from the obvious bits (Lin's acerbic line deliveries, the extremely dry comedie's most reliable source of humor), to the subtleties (Mizuhara manages to put across her character's amusement at the situation and also her alarm that this family is thoughtlessly using her as a prop in a performance where she speaks barely one word of either Mandarin or English and virtually never interacts with the rest of the cast), to the things that don't even look like acting, like a sequence in a graveyard where Zhou leads the rest of the cast in rhythmic bows that everybody gets just slightly wrong, and the amount of slightness in each case seems to be determined by the personality of the individual. Which does, at it must, bring us back to the leads, who are outstanding: Zhou's use of body language to communicate the joy she feels at seeing Billi is a force of brightness in every scene, and her facial expressions are a perfect mix of radiance, solemnity, and unspoken regrets. It's inspiring and unbelievable that this is her first film performance.

As for Awkwafina, it's her fifth film performance, and the one that pays off all the promises she made in 2018's Ocean's Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. Those films only asked her to be a source of buzzy comic energy, and she carried that off without a hitch; but she also had a magnetic screen presence, despite being fairly far to the side of the plot in both cases. The Farewell asks her to do some typical "prove you're an actor" tasks: almost cry, actually cry, rant, look solemnly at the sky. And she nails these, which isn't nothing: the temptation to go big for a relatively fresh actor has to be present, and she resolutely stays small and pent-up. What's more impressive is that she keeps a biting sense of ironic humor to all of this, never quite letting us forget that Billi finds this as ridiculous as it is upsetting. What's most impressive is this thing she does with her shoulders, where she looks so heavy and sad and tired - jet lag is only mentioned once, but it hangs over the movie like a thunderhead - that she looks like she might tip forward at any moment. There are years-established actors who forget that how you hang your arms is part of acting, too, and Awkwafina has figured out it on in just her first starring role.

All in all, a deeply sincere and special movie. Not perfect; not hardly, not with those pacing issues, and not with the script's persistent tendency to directly spell out themes and subtexts in dialogue, most obnoxiously in a small lecture about "Western individualists do this but Chinese collectivists do THIS" that very obviously assumes a white American viewer is sitting in the corner of the room where the conversation is taking place. But as an attempt to pin down a series of subjective impressions of a city and subjective impressions of a grandmother's warm, life-giving energy, The Farewell is so earnest and precise, coming from such an obviously honest place in the writer-director's heart, that it's easy to be swept up by its emotional richness, lumps and all.