Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was the emotional highlight of Sundance Film Festival London. One of the most anticipated films of the festival, the bittersweet family drama didn't disappoint the press and moved audiences, ultimately winning the Audience Favourite Award amongst an eclectic selection of 12 films.

Based on the director’s own experience, the film follows Billi (played by Awkwafina) and her family as they grapple with the news of her grandma’s terminal cancer. The paradox at the heart of the film is that everyone in the family knows except her grandma (played by Shuzhen Zhao), sheltered from the news so that she can spend her last months unaware, but peaceful. Billi is reassured that this is common practice in Chinese families, and is encouraged to stay in New York while her parents set off on a trip to China to see Nai Nai one last time, because she "can't hide her emotions".

Nevertheless, Billi decides to go, embarking on the difficult mission of hiding her pain in order not to cause more pain, with one question always at the back of her brain: isn't it everyone's right to be able to say goodbye?

Despite the dark premise, Wang manages to find shining moments of light: the film is imbued with bittersweet humour, and the family dynamics are beautifully and delicately observed. The pain of imminent separation is mixed with the joy of seeing loved ones after a long time, while the true reason why the family reunites is concealed by a preposterous wedding that is, at the same time, a funeral. This set-up allows Wang and her characters to show feeling in roundabout ways: affection is performed through small gestures; pain is repressed in public only to come out in earnest private outbursts; tears of sadness are concealed as tears of joy.

The wedding offers the perfect setting to explore the theme of performativity: Billi's family is trained in keeping up appearances, and all efforts are made in order for everything to look perfect, including lying about how long Billi's cousin and his Japanese bride have been dating. Wang plays with the artificiality of it all by repeatedly framing her characters against fake backdrops, resulting in beautiful but ephemeral images that mirror the staginess and humour of the wedding.

Everything eventually circles back to the emotional heart of the film, wonderfully embodied by Awkwafina. By far her most dramatic and nuanced role yet, her Billi is an in-betweener: displaced both in New York (where she moved from China when she was a little girl) and in her homeland. She admittedly can&'t speak Mandarin very well, and needs help from her parents in vocalizing her feelings in a language that used to be her own. Moreover, her outsider status brings her to question tradition, and to be the only one who energetically opposes the decision to lie to her grandma. The way the two play off each other is beautiful: Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai smooths Awkwafina's edges and brings out her tenderness, and while the bond they share is deep and sincere, they're both forced by the situation to play strong when they're together, only to crumble when they're unseen.

Despite its relatively small story, The Farewell is a rich film that explores big and sensitive themes through the lense of one family: a lot is left unsaid, but that's where its strength lies. Instead of relying on the exaggerated fiction of melodrama, Wang finds the truth behind the real lies we tell and senses the emotional potential. The final result is a powerful and moving portrait of family, grief, and love.