There are many stories about the immigrant experience and people struggling to fit into a new life. Fremont, which makes its debut in the NEXT category spotlighting innovative cinema at Sundance, comes as a refreshing spin on that familiar genre. It manages to be both funny and worthwhile as it empowers its protagonist to express herself and attempt to take charge of her situation when she’s not set up to be able to do so.
Anaita Wali Zada makes her film debut as Donya, a Kabul native who, after working as a translator for the U.S. Army, flees Afghanistan to settle in Fremont, California. In Fremont she works at a fortune cookie company…
Donya doesn’t speak much but has a warm relationship with one gregarious coworker. When the woman who writes the fortunes dies, Donya is promoted to that job. At the same time, a doctor pushes her to speak about what she’s been through in exchange for a prescription for sleeping pills. Donya resists opening up in that particular way but finds a surprising release in crafting short messages to embed within diners’ desserts.
Much of the comedy of Fremont comes from the unexpected way in which Donya interacts with others, particularly in her therapy sessions, which also find Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkinton) relying on allegories from White Fang to help him relate to and analyze Donya’s situation. Her responses are short and direct, and she isn’t interested in being forced to do something she doesn’t want to. She’s already too used to that dynamic as a newcomer to the United States. Similarly, she says little to her employer, who is eager to relay his years of wisdom and wonder from the fortune cookie business. Despite how little she actually speaks, Donya is a remarkably expressive character.
Fremont is shot in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, which helps to zone in on Donya’s journey. The sounds of the wrappers being put on the cookies and of select conversation are particularly potent, making this a memorable visual and audial experience. This small film from director Babak Jalali is sure to get a boost in visibility from the involvement of Florian Zeller, who attended the film’s premiere (his company Blue Morning Pictures is involved) along with numerous cast and crew members, and the appearance of The Bear and Shameless actor Jeremy Allen White. But the real star is the incredible Zada, who imbues Donya with a subdued spark that carries this quiet and endearing film. B+