Fremont is a quiet movie. Subtle direction by Babak Jalali (Land, Radio Dreams) uses music interludes, long silences and intervals between dialogue to dramatic effect. The film, shot in black and white, is set in and named for a small California city with a large Afghan population. Donya is an Afghan immigrant (Anaita Wali Zada, a real-life Afghan immigrant in her debut film role). She’s lonely in her new home, where she works in a fortune-cookie factory and watches Turkish soap operas while eating dinner alone.
She misses home and family and yearns for connections but mostly she just wants to be able to sleep. She begins to see a sympathetic therapist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), who tries to get her to talk about her experiences in Kabul and leaving home for America. At first, she answers his questions in monosyllables. But she gradually becomes comfortable with him and tells more of her story. She worked as a translator for the US Army in Kabul so that she could earn money and get a passport out of Afghanistan, which she left just after the Taliban returned. Her family considered her a traitor because she was working for the enemy. Dr. Anthony, who has worked with other Afghan translators, has some understanding of her situation and suggests she may have PTSD. “Do you know what post-traumatic stress disorder is?” he asks Donya. “I don’t have that,” she says. “I just can’t sleep.”
Donya is suffering from survivors’ guilt, even though she doesn’t address it directly. Ruminating on her life, she asks questions like, does a person deserve to be happy when people are dying back home?
She likes her job at the fortune cookie factory, especially after she is promoted from packaging cookies to writing the fortune messages. Donya has a work friend with whom she discusses ways to meet men. Joanna (a realistic portrayal by Hilda Schmelling) urges Donya to search for a blind date. Donya decides to send her own message out into the world and writes a fortune message that begins: “Desperate for a dream.”
Fremont is also a sneaky film with frequent elements of.deadpan humor. In a series of scenes where several couples open their fortune cookies, one of the messages says, “The fortune you’re looking for is in another cookie.”
First-time actor Zada gives a remarkable performance, quiet and sometimes glowing. Her Donya is obviously smart and thoughtful and her moods range from somber to playful. Fremont offers another treat in a lovely cameo performance near the end of the film by Jeremy Allen White (our favorite chef from The Bear). He plays a lonely auto mechanic and he and Donya make a tentative connection. Director Jalali, who cowrote the film with Caroline Cavalli, continues his understated approach; he only suggests, never declares. Many things are left unsaid in Fremont and that’s one of the charms of this film.
Original music by Mahmood Schricker never intrudes on the story. The instrumentation of electric setar, baritone horn and upright bass is moody and sometimes has a South Asian quality.
Jalali chose to shoot Fremont in black and white and his director of photography, Laura Valladao, uses light and shadow with a sometimes noirish effect. The exterior evening scenes have strong shadows and suggest the shadows in Donya’s moods.
Fremont opens on Friday, September 8, at the Music Box Theatre.
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