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Jalali Welcomes Viewers to ‘Fremont’

Cinema | August 27th, 2023

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

In Sundance standout “Fremont,” the outwardly mundane and inwardly tumultuous experiences of a young woman from Afghanistan are spun by filmmaker Babak Jalali into gold.

Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) has left her home country for the California community of the title after spending time as a military translator. Hiding, repressing, or simply refusing to deal with complex emotions and likely PTSD (though she would deny it), Donya takes up residence in an apartment complex populated with other refugees and finds work in a small mom-and-pop fortune cookie company.

Beautifully captured by director of photography Laura Valladao in the squarish 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, the movie’s offbeat style is accentuated by the sharp black and white of its careful compositions.

As a storyteller, Jalali’s droll humor, wordless pauses and frequent application of static master shots match perfectly with the watchful awareness of the laconic and taciturn Donya. Comparisons of Jalali to Jim Jarmusch are apt, particularly in the way the director – who co-wrote the screenplay with Carolina Cavalli – wrings out all kinds of absurdity alongside key moments of transcendent sentiment.

Because Donya chooses to withhold the expression of emotion around others, the viewer is called upon to imagine just what exactly is going on inside her head.

Master meta/anti-comedian Gregg Turkington plays Dr. Anthony, the therapist Donya is required to see in her attempt to acquire prescription medicine to, as the protagonist insists, help her sleep. This casting is especially on-point, as Turkington has developed a career dependent on commitment to characters existing in a liminal state between earnestness and irony. Many additional side and supporting personalities cross paths with Donya during the course of the story, but Turkington’s presence is a series of small gifts. His use of Jack London’s “White Fang” as a therapeutic tool is among my favorite scenes of the year.

Turkington is not the only actor who leaves a big impression in a small number of onscreen minutes. Jeremy Allen White helps Jalali stick the movie’s excellent landing as a magical mechanic. Hilda Schmelling absolutely destroys a transcendent rendition of Vashti Bunyan’s haunting folk gem “Diamond Day,” bringing tears to Donya’s eyes and the eyes of viewers. Eddie Tang respects the fortune cookie business even as his partner Jennifer McKay plots and schemes. Fazil Seddiqui keeps a close eye on his favorite Turkish soap opera while conversing with Donya at the quiet restaurant she frequents.

It’s the errand of a fool to reductively pigeonhole “Fremont” as a character study focused on universals like loneliness and isolation (as well as the painful curse of survivor’s guilt). While these themes cannot be ignored, Jalali builds a special world around his main character, whose very specific challenges are made acutely familiar by Wali Zada.

Donya’s confident bursts of assertiveness contrast with her more typical circumspect introversion. Her decision to take a risk and send a personal message into the world is an S.O.S. contained in a cookie instead of a bottle, serving as an example to all that fortune can favor the timid as well as the bold. 

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