There’s a loose template to many films that find a platform at Sundance and frequently disappear into the ether thereafter — the small-scale, muted mood piece that ambles along until something significant finally happens in the last half-hour or so. Your enjoyment of the quietly humorous character study Fremont will depend on your patience for that model. Still, there’s much to appreciate in the rarely explored Afghan immigrant milieu and the droll decision of director Babak Jalali and co-writer Carolina Cavalli to plonk their young protagonist down in a family-run Chinese fortune cookie factory.
London-based Iranian filmmaker Jalali casts Anaita Wali Zada — a former national television presenter forced to flee the Taliban after the fall of Kabul — as Donya, who worked as a translator at US Army bases. That “traitorous” background earns her the hostility of a neighbor living in the same housing complex populated by Afghan refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area city that gives the film its title.
The Bottom Line
A minor-key miniaturist portrait.
Shooting in black and white and the snug Academy ratio, Jalali keeps the focus tight on Donya as she works on the short assembly line at Hand-Made Fortune Cookies and returns home to mostly sleepless nights, often stopping at a local café where she watches soap. operas and gets weary advice from the old cook.
When another neighbor decides to skip his government-provided psychiatrist appointment, Donya presents herself in his place to ask for sleeping pills. The shrink, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), is reluctant to accept the switch in his pro bono slots for people on an immigrant visa program. But Donya won’t take no for an answer.
During their weekly sessions, Dr. Anthony eventually starts reading from Jack London’s White Fang, its tale of a mixed-breed wolf-dog’s turbulent journey from wild animal to domesticated pet perhaps intended to mirror Donya’s difficult adjustment to American life in some way. Or not.
That element of the script feels half-baked, and those encounters, frankly, become a drag — also because in a cast of mainly nonprofessional actors, the relatively experienced actor-comedian Turkington is arguably the least successful at maintaining the overriding balance between deadpan and melancholy. The affectless performances delivered in fixed-camera shots work better in the fortune cookie factory, especially when an elderly co-worker abruptly drops dead at her station and Donya is promoted to composing the fortunes and cutting the paper strips to be inserted into the cookie dough. .
That shift, with its oddball hint of supreme power, also ups the narrative momentum by presenting Donya with an opportunity to send a message out into the world, suggesting a yearning she’s otherwise barely willing to articulate.
Her impulsive act doesn’t have the intended result, but it yields an amusing misunderstanding that takes Donya out of town, where she encounters a mechanic at a remote gas station, perhaps even more starved for company than she is. That amiable grease monkey is played by The Bear breakout star Jeremy Allen White with a tamed-down natural charm and a nervously ingratiating manner that peeks out from beneath his shyness. His presence invigorates the film so substantially that it retroactively gives Fremont more weight.
That’s not to say the movie fails to engage up to that point. While the psychiatrist appointments tend to stall things, there are many moments of delicate understatement, such as Donya contemplating whether it’s wrong for her to want love when people back in her country are still suffering. A sweet exchange with her Chinese American boss (Eddie Tang) resonates when he talks about their countries sharing a border as a roundabout way of saying there are lonely people everywhere.
While it’s a wisp of a movie, almost directionless at times and self-consciously quirky at others, Fremont contains enough poignantly observed interludes to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Butimar Productions, Extra A Productions, in association with Blue Morning Pictures
Cast: Anaita Wali Zada, Jeremy Allen White, Gregg Turkington, Hilda Schmelling, Avis See-tho, Siddique Ahmed, Taban Ibraz, Timur Nusratty, Eddie Tang, Jennifer McKay, Divya Jakatdar, Fazil Seddiqui, Molly Noble, Enoch Ku
Director: Babak Jalali
Screenwriters: Babak Jalali, Carolina Cavalli
Producers: Marjaneh Moghimi, Sudnya Shroff, Rachael Fung, Laura Wagner, Chris Martin, George Rush
Director of photography: Laura Valladao
Production designer: Rob Riutta
Costume designer: Caroline Sebastian
Music: Mahmoud Schricker
Editor: Babak Jalali
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Sales: Memento International/CAA
1 hour 49 minutes
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