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Review: Fremont – “Bold and assured in its style”

Anaita Wali Zada in FREMONT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Once, upon opening a fortune cookie, I took out the small strip of paper and it read, “You like Chinese food.”  I mean, this was a fairly safe assumption considering the meal I had just devoured, and was far from a fortune, instead just confirming something I already knew.  Yet, many (many) years later I still remember this and how it made me laugh, and I have to wonder, who wrote that ‘fortune’ and what was their story?

It could have been the story of Donya (newcomer Anaita Wali Zada), who is currently working at a fortune cookie company in San Francisco.  Originally from Afghanistan, she worked as a translator for the U.S army before immigrating to America.  Her former career makes her not always liked by the other Afghans where she lives in nearby Fremont.  “I worked with the enemy to ensure your security!” she exclaims to one neighbour who always looks at her with distaste.  

Now, Donya is isolated, only really speaking to a few people, including one co-worker and the owner of an always-empty restaurant where she likes to eat.  She struggles to connect with the world around her, she struggles with guilt, she struggles with sleep.  

Her insomnia sends her to seek the help of a psychiatrist (Gregg Turkington) in order to get a prescription for sleeping pills.  Obsessed with the book White Fang, the therapist actually manages to find connections between the lone wolf and Donya’s journey (in some of the quirkiest and most charming scenes of the film) and their sessions help her to come out of her shell.  With a promotion at work allowing her to write the fortunes of many, the only question is which future she sees for herself.  

Directed by Babak Jalali, Fremont is bold and assured in its style, shooting in black and white with largely centred, static shots in a square aspect ratio.  This keeps the frame relatively small, always focused, mostly on Anaita Wali Zara’s remarkable performance, and rightly so.  The actor, who makes her debut here, perfectly encapsulates Donya’s state of mind, her essence, her darkness, and the inner light trying to shine through.  There is one lovely scene where she practices going on a blind date in her apartment that is so charming you can’t help but smile, especially knowing how alone Donya has been.  

Many might find Fremont because of Jeremy Allen White (The Bear), but while his brief performance is great, he shouldn’t be the main reason to watch.  He shows up about 3/4 of the way through the film, and while his scenes as a mechanic whom Donya meets on a disappointing road trip are sweet and welcome, it’s still Zara who shines here.  

If the description of Fremont sounds a bit sparse, it is.  There isn’t a large plot driving the film, it’s more of a character study, an exploration of one immigrant’s experience in coming to the U.S..  But, Jalali keeps the pace of the film moving, even if the plot does not.  Coupled with the mesmerizing work of his lead, Jalali’s stylish film is never boring, even if its story isn’t the primary focus.  

Written with sensitivity by Jalali and Carolina Cavalli, Fremont is a solid dramedy, a film not afraid to infuse some quirky and light humour into its more serious framework. At its core is a well-developed character who is ‘desperate for a dream’ after a traumatic past and you can’t help but wish that for her so very deeply.  You hope that every little fortune she has put out into the world are things she finds for herself.  I don’t know if they will lead her to the safe knowledge that she likes Chinese food, as it did me, but perhaps all those little connections will help her feel rooted and safe in order to find that dream she so desperately longs for.  

Fremont had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.  It opens in San Francisco August 25th and LA and New York September 1st.

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