“I don’t spend much time thinking,” says 20-something Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), a troubled and displaced Afghan insomniac, to her doctor in the terrific, breakthrough indie “Fremont.” Why? he asks inquisitively. “Too busy with my social life,” she answers, with confidence so cool and so far from the truth, it’s laugh-out-loud comical.
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Donya’s social life is non-existent; all she does is think. A former translator for the U.S. army that fled Afghanistan and left her family behind for fear of Taliban reprisal — for “betraying” her country and “working for the enemy” (she did it simply for money) — Donya is wracked with guilt and thoughts, which is part of the reason she can’t sleep. She is a stranger in a strange land (the United States), and while she speaks fluent English, has a job, and lives in an Afghan immigrant community in Fremont, California, Donya is lonely. She’s haunted by the past and struggling with existential longing for newfound connections and those she left behind.
Working in a fortune cookie factory and hitting a local restaurant at night — where the owner plays crappy Afghan soap operas he knows are terrible to make him forget the sadness of not being connected to his home — “Fremont” plays with cyclical routine and quietly comedic ritual reminiscent of the work of Jim Jarmusch.
Directed by BAFTA-nominated Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali (“Radio Dreams,” “Land”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Carolina Cavalli, “Fremont” has many Jarmuschian qualities — black and white photography that reminds of “Strangers In Paradise”; simple, modest storytelling, with harmony and comedy in habitual ceremony; and low-key, wry, deadpan humor. But for all the similarities — including clarity and intentionality for every scene and moment — Jalali’s film still feels intensely unique.
“Fremont” almost functions like a disciplined clockwork of storytelling. Donya laboring at her Chinese Fortune Cookie factory in San Francisco, the dry absurdities of working there and those that see it as their life’s work, the Afghan restaurant nights, and the wistful conversations she has at the end of the night with her neighbor, habitually smoking, looking at the night sky for answers and full of a similar spiritual ache.
Sleepless in Fremont, she tentatively starts to take steps to heal herself, and the first stop is bum-rushing a doctor’s office (Greg Turkington plays the doc), trying to push him into prescribing her sleeping pills. But Dr. Anthony mostly sidesteps her many requests, instead walking her through conversations masked as therapy sessions to try and understand her past and what are the psychic and emotional pains that burden her so profoundly.
Feisty, troubled, but quiet, Donya yearns for connection, and eventually, she shoots her shot into the universe of destiny, putting a personal message (and her phone number) into a fortune cookie and putting that out into the world. Through a series of unconnected events and/or fate, she crosses paths with garage mechanic Daniel (Jeremy Allen White of “The Bear” in a small role), pointing to a road of possibility and hope.
“Fremont” is so spartan but so charming, thoughtful, and carefully crafted. With the help of his cinematographer Laura Valladao, Jalali creates such an evocative world in the movie’s crisp and beautiful black-and-white photography. The camera is almost always locked on one frame, many scenes largely taking place within that frame, but there is a zen-like quality to its confidence and considerate composition. “Fremont” is gently melancholic, softly lonesome, and subtly droll and witty; all of its qualities are so temperate and mild you could mistake it for lack of personality. Those paying attention will see the opposite is true. The brilliance of the film’s intention throughout is how tenderly and delicately it holds space for all of the movie’s sympathetically luminous moods.
Likewise, the performances are gracefully awesome and rendered with exquisite care. Beautiful and seemingly shy, Anaita Wali Zada is a true breakout star. You can almost guarantee casting directors will rush to find a spot for her in upcoming shows, movies, or guest appearances. Turkington does some deftly restrained comedic work (amazingly hilarious with his sardonic minimalism), and Allen White is a ringer. Maybe in the movie for ten minutes or so, he helps bring it to life and seal the deal on a film that is already captivating, generous, sensitive, and full of human curiosity.
About the pains of being displaced, the wounds of homesickness, and our desires to escape the restless nights of loneliness, “Fremont” is a real gem. However, rendered with such subtle delicacy and emotional authenticity, it could easily get lost in the shuffle of festivalgoers impatiently running from one film to the next. Crafted with stillness, empathy, and clever drollness, “Fremont” is so striking it will simply and calmly demand your attention. So seemingly introverted, humble, and unassuming, it’ll force you to lean in, listen and heed all the humorous words of wisdom in its many little moments of providence. [B+]
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‘Fremont’ Review: An Afghan Insomniac Tries To Find Purpose In A Refreshingly Unique & Jarmuschian-Esque Indie Dramedy [Sundance]