Fremont – movie review

Fremont is the fourth feature from Iranian born filmmaker Babak Jalali. This low-budget, low-key indie drama follows Donya (played by newcomer Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan refugee who has relocated to the town of Fremont in California.

She used to work as a translator for the US military in Afghanistan before the withdrawal of troops. She lives alone in an apartment in a block inhabited by fellow Afghani refugees but she is looking for a deeper connection. Every day she commutes to San Francisco where she works in a fortune cookie factory. Her compassionate boss Ricky (Eddie Tang) says that fortune cookie messages “shouldn’t be too lucky, they shouldn’t be too unlucky” and this serves as a metaphor for Donya’s life. Ricky seems to take Donya under his wing and gives her a more optimistic outlook. When his main fortune writer dies unexpectedly Ricky promotes Donya to the task. His wife Lin (Jennifer McKay) however seems to resent her.

Donya is worried about her family, whom she has had to leave behind in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. She has trouble sleeping and begins to regularly see psychiatrist Dr Anthony (played by Australian comic and actor Gregg Turkington, who is better known as Neil Hamburger) who is trying to help her adjust to life in her new environment. He also prescribes sleep medication for her.

Donya’s life is a pretty solitary one until a road trip brings her to a small town where a brief meeting with Daniel (Jeremy Allen White, from The Iron Claw), a lonely mechanic, holds out hope for a brighter future and the possibility of romance.

Written by Jalali and Carolina Cavalli this gentle film explores themes of loneliness, the refugee experience, survivor’s guilt, the need for a connection and purpose. Jalali’s direction is relaxed, and he adopts an amiable, observational style that seems natural and unforced, and his approach suits the material.

Fremont has been shot in moody black and white by cinematographer Laura Vallado (Homebody). Her use of the boxy Academy ratio lends the material a more intimate feel. The droll humour and the dry, deadpan delivery of the dialogue is reminiscent of the style of Jim Jarmusch and Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki; two directors Jalali admires.

The quirky characters are brought to life by the small cast, who seem attuned to the eccentricities of their characters. Fremont marks the debut film for Zada, herself a former TV journalist and refugee from Afghanistan, and she understands the character. Her performance is grounded with a lived-in authenticity, and she demonstrates a willingness to be vulnerable on camera. In a small role White is sympathetic. Turkington brings a dry humour to his role as the clueless and stuffy Dr Anthony, and apparently a lot of his dialogue was improvised on set.

Jalali used a couple of actual locations, including a kebab restaurant and a fortune cookie factory which adds authenticity to the settings.

Greg King

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