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FREMONT (2023) review

October 6, 2023


written by: Carolina Cavalli and Babak Jalali
produced by: Marjaneh Moghimi, Sudnya Shroff, Rachael Fung, George Rush, Chris Martin & Laura Wagner
directed by: Babak Jalali
rated: not rated
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance) & August 25, 2023 (limited)


Just north of San Jose, California, you will find the town of Fremont (pronounced Free-mont), located on the east side of San Francisco’s bay area. It’s the setting for “Fremont”, the latest film from Iranian-British director Babak Jalai, a black-and-white dramedy with a quirky deadpan delivery, revolving around the monotonous and lonely life of an Afghan refugee. Themes of community and connection are explored throughout the film in a very naturalistic manner with subtleties of dry humor that keep viewers curious and engaged. The people that inhabit “Fremont” feel real enough to the extent that the film almost comes across as a documentary, albeit a humorous take on a documentary.

The story follows Donya (Anaita Wali Zada, in a breakout debut performance) a twentysomething Afghan immigrant who resides in Fremont. While the apartment complex she lives in also has other Afghan immigrants living there, Donya still deals with feelings of loneliness and quite possibly feelings of guilt and shame. She’s able to be in America because of a job she had working for the United States as a translator in Kabul, which allowed her the opportunity that few like her have…the ability to leave her birth country. Despite talkative and helpful neighbors such as Mina (Taban Ibraz), Suleyman (Timur Nusratty) and Salim (Siddique Ahmed), Donya experiences an underlying longing that’s she wrestles with.



Donya knows she could use a change of pace, but she doesn’t really see a way to change things up for herself. Each day, she sees the same people, whether it’s those in her apartment complex or her co-workers at a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown run by a Chinese couple, Ricky (Eddie Tang) and Lin (Jennifer McKay), or the Afghan restaurant owner at the place she frequents for dinner after work.

This restaurant is one of many places where Donya has to endure questions from others. Here she is asked by the owner why she doesn’t watch the Afghan soap operas that play or why she can’t find a nice husband, “There’s no reason why a young girl like you to spend evenings watching television with an old man. An old man like me. When did your heart last skip a beat for someone? A heart can also skip a beat for other nationalities. It doesn’t have to be an Afghan.” Donya agrees and just takes in this information during one of many exchanges she has where the other person (usually a man) delivers unsolicited advice. While he is kind and as experienced in loneliness as she is, it’s both draining and humorous to watch her patiently take in all this input. However, we also see what kind of impact Donya has on others, despite barely saying a word.



Donya has a noticeable resilience about her, which can especially be seen when we watch her endure the litany of questions from a psychiatrist she sees. Even the way she happens upon the first appointment with Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington) – solely to acquire medication to help with her insomnia – shows a good deal of determination on her part. He has so many questions about her job as a translator and her family back in Afghanistan, which hardly pertains or speaks to where she is at in life currently in Fremont. One of his many questions confirms how “Fremont” can be confidently placed as a dry comedy. Like when he offers, “Guess which immigrant hero I love the most?” and then he proceeds to hold up a copy of Jack London’s White Fang.

Her confusion to this is palpable and something we feel as well. Dr. Anthony is convinced Donya needs to continue her sessions with him, to work out her “issues” which he feels are related to her being here in the States. He thinks she has PTSD, yet it’s clear she shows no outward signs of such a condition.

There are so many odd and sudden events occur in “Fremont” as we watch Donya engage with others each day. It’s not at all annoying, it’s just baffling in a whimsical way. During her sessions, she offers Dr. Anthony a fortune cookie and when he opens it, he reads, “The fortune you seek is in another cookie” (which is both a clever and lazy fortune) and he proceeds to man-splain how and what to write for fortune cookies. During another session, he proudly lays out a couple dozen handwritten fortunes he wrote that he calls “a very satisfying arts and crafts project”. It’s just more unsolicited input that Donya must endure.

When a co-worker suddenly (albeit comically) dies on the job, Donya’s boss offers her the open position in literary production, which means she will now be required to type out the fortunes that are found in the cookies. He explains it as a responsibility, stating, “They shouldn’t be too lucky. They shouldn’t be too unlucky. They shouldn’t be too original. They shouldn’t be too obvious. They shouldn’t be too short. They shouldn’t be too long.” That’s right, workers at this factory actually come up with the fortunes, like writers for Hallmark cards. When her boss briefs her on these new responsibilities, he lets her know that he’s seen writers come and go, but the ones who stay are ones who talk about love and adds the ones who are best at talking about love are the ones who love themselves, “Do you love yourself?” he asks. Despite his friendliness, it’s quite an awkward exchange between manager and employee.



Things get interesting in “Fremont” when Jalali, who co-wrote the screenplay with Carolina Cavalli, shows us how the fortunes Donya writes impacts those who read them. This is especially true when she writes something very personal and vulnerable, resulting in a message or plea coming from a place of loneliness rather than a fortune. There is irony in how fortunes that typically dispense wisdom are coming from a young person who has so much uncertainty and longing insider her. Little do the readers know, the writer is likely similar to them.

Donya is not so much a complicated character as she is a layered one. Her surivor’s guilt is implied (mostly by others), but never fully confirmed. She is not necessarily lost, but moreso on her own path to discovery and along the way is met with unsolicited advisors…except for an auto mechanic she meets in the third act, named Daniel (Jeremy Allen White). This is the first character that doesn’t overexplain to Donya or offer advice. He meets her where she’s at and they gradually and naturally get to know each other in a lovely manner.

For a first-time performance, it is impressive how effortlessly Zada confidently carries “Fremont”. She expresses volumes without saying much, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in her story. While much of her delivery is soft-spoken and deadpan, there definitely is an apparent character arch for Donya, thanks to Zada’s portrayal. It may seem like Donya has a mundane life, but Zada brings a lot to the character, which helps us conclude that there are multiple layers to her.

Some will question or be put off by the tone Jalai establishes with “Fremont”, but I found it refreshing and different. Some may even find the humor either forced or unfunny. I disagree. It has the naturalness and whimsical charm of an early Jarmusch or Linklater film and the choice of black-and-white (beautifully shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao) allows us to lean in a little closer and get lost for a little while.






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