A long time ago, in what might as well have been a galaxy far, far away, Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) was a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Now, this young woman lives in the Bay Area town of Fremont, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley and a dozen or so BART stops from San Francisco. Every day, she commutes from an apartment complex populated by Afghan immigrants into the City by the Bay, where she works in a fortune-cookie factory in Chinatown. Every evening, she returns home and suffers through bouts of insomnia well into the wee small hours.
Still, other than the chronic lack of sleep, nothing really phases Donya — not the blind-date adventures of her single-and-ready-to-mingle coworker (Hilda Schmelling), not the eternal optimism of her chipper boss (Eddie Tang), not the White Fang obsessions of her psychiatrist (Gregg Turkington), not the uncertainty of her fellow refugees who’ve escaped their war-torn home country and still aren’t quite sure where they fit into this one. She neither smiles nor scowls, preferring to stay as blank a slate as possible. Asked what she thought America would be like when she first arrived here, Donya replies, “I didn’t think how it would be. I didn’t even think of America. I just wanted to get out of there.” Besides, she adds, she doesn’t have time to think about anything. “Too busy with my social life,” Donya notes, accompanied by a barely perceptible sarcastic shrug.
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The fact that Fremont revolves not just around refugees uprooted by war, but also the aftermath of the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan in 2020, clearly sets Iranian-born, England-bred writer-director Babak Jalali’s exquisite dramedy in the present-day. (Zada herself arrived in the States several years ago on one of the U.S. military’s evacuation planes that ferried citizens out upon the Taliban’s return.) Yet the style, bone-dry humor, and overall vibe of this deadpan look at the diaspora blues makes you wonder if it’s actually been sealed in a Sundance vault since the late Eighties or early Nineties, back when black-and-white movies about near-expressionless characters with quirky gigs were synonymous with independent filmmaking. Not for nothing did this premiere at the Park City film festival this past January — clearly the programmers recognized that was both a nod to golden-oldie–indie days and the sort of elliptical character study in miniature that the fest helped turn into something game-changing and revolutionary.
Fremont is neither game-changing nor revolutionary. It’s merely a throwback, in the best possible way, to a low-fi aesthetic and low-key way of storytelling you thought had gone the way of the Triceratops. That, in fact, is what makes this deceptively placid, supremely wry movie so damned moving. It has no use for sentimentality or melodrama — the movie inherently knows that both of those elements would reduce Donya to a cliché and risk her story becoming crass pity-porn. Humanity is present and accounted for, it just quietly thrums throughout instead of being performatively trumpeted. The obvious and most namechecked comparison is the early works of Jim Jarmusch, thanks to the monochromatic images, the unfettered compositions (lots of single, centered characters staring into the camera; lots of negative space), and a po-faced wit best described as Ha. Ha. [Pause] Ha?
What Jalali’s scuffed gem of a film really has in common with Jarmusch’s tales of hipsters and happy wanderers is the sincerity that peeks out right below his placid surfaces and downtown-irony mojo. Deadpan doesn’t equal dead inside — it just strips things back and/or finds laughs and emotions in less obvious, more minor keys. So though Donya may seem above it all or overwhelmed to the point of numbness, she’s really just reluctant to suffer fools or stoop to histrionics for a movie that doesn’t require it. So much hinges on Zada’s performance here, which feels perfect for what she’s playing. And despite being a nonprofessional, her timing is impeccable — when Donya’s shrink claims that his “favorite immigrant hero” is the title character of Jack London’s White Fang, she holds a beat then subtly but incredulously asks, “The dog?” (It’s a wolf, he tells her, but never mind.)
Our hero will eventually smile, and cry a single tear while listening karaoke — because yes, this is still an idiosyncratic indie dramedy — and do something rash that earns her an enemy. She will also meet a Manic Punky Dream Dude in the form of The Bear star Jeremy Allen White’s melancholy mechanic. What the filmmaker, along with his co-writer Carolina Cavalli, never forces her to do is adapt or assimilate in a way that seems convenient to easy-peasy uplift, or even closure. Even when Donya appears to risk favoring one previously established, generationally deep diaspora via Chinatown over her own, albeit one located in the biggest Afghan population in the U.S., there’s no sense that she’s culture-surfing. She just seems lost, yet leaves us entertaining the possibility she is finally ready to be found. Fremont, however, never seems lost, even with an open ending. It knows exactly where it is, and exactly what it wants to be.
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