The Lonely and Endearing Wander through Fremont

Movies Reviews Babak Jalali
The Lonely and Endearing Wander through Fremont

Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) used to translate between the U.S. Army and her Afghan countrymen. Now, she writes fortunes for cookies in a San Francisco factory. Always a practical middleman, conveying messages that aren’t hers, Donya’s whole world is the blind leading the blind.  The destination is as vague and wanting as the journey. She’s immigrated to a country full of wanderers, all searching for answers, whether that means finding love or figuring out how to embrace their loneliness. In America, her neighbor notices, even the stars don’t stand still. Not like they did in Kabul, anyways. Bumping into a variety of slight yet warm oddballs who’re just as lost as she is, Donya’s deadpan life finds freedom without focus in Fremont.

Directed by Babak Jalali, who co-wrote it with Amanda filmmaker Carolina Cavalli (Jalali edited that movie), Fremont is a series of encounters with strange folks who speak in offbeat free verse and cling to their own ideas about life. Donya navigates a boxy, encapsulating, Jarmusch-like world of people like this, shot as stiff, well-contrasted black-and-white images enamored with the wrinkles and liver spots they notice on older faces. This is where inertia will keep her, until she’s raising a baby, working until she drops facedown on the keyboard, or both. She’s not locked into a content routine like Paterson, but there is a contained repetition, played both for itchy discomfort and quiet laughs.

Donya’s always the only customer eating dinner when a restaurant employee stops to watch his Turkish soaps. She’s always there to lend an ear when her work pal (Hilda Schmelling) recounts blind dates, or karaoke-serenades her with Vashti Bunyan’s “Diamond Day” (a fittingly spare, quotidian track). Their boss (Eddie Tang), like all bosses, loves to think he’s dispensing nuggets of precious wisdom. So too does Donya’s therapist (Gregg Turkington), sometimes as a Jack London conduit, reading passages of White Fang aloud.

These character vignettes compose Donya’s straight-faced life and Fremont’s straight-faced tone. Wali Zada—a newcomer who, in a piece of tragic casting serendipity, joined the movie shortly after evacuating Afghanistan, leaving her family behind—is our viewfinder. Stubborn and quiet, her piercing stares do the heavy lifting as she observes those around her with hints of irony, exhaustion and bemusement. The movie’s camera and actors are mostly stationary, so it’s the depth and not the breadth of Wali Zada’s expressions that guide our own reactions.

She needs sleeping pills from her therapist, her insomnia a lasting relic from her past life, but she weathers his ridiculous wolfdog musings and his homemade fortunes (wonky, hand-cut quadrilaterals) with softness. Is that half a grin hidden there? It’s how we’re reassured, beyond the script’s less elegant punchlines, that these characters are worth our affection. When the man turns off the soap operas because he feels embarrassed, or shy about what his enjoyment says about his own life, it’s especially endearing because we feel Donya’s empathy. When Donya slips a message-in-a-bottle personal ad into a cookie, we get a little jolt of hope. When she bumps into a quiet mechanic (Jeremy Allen White) on his lunch break, we yearn alongside her.

Fremont’s finale has its sweetest payoff and Wali Zada’s most magnetic scene partner. It also has the benefit of breaking free from Donya’s bubble, giving her (and us) a reprieve from a script wearing itself thin before reaching 90 minutes. White and Wali Zada don’t burn for each other, but Fremont isn’t that kind of movie. We’re pulled into their magnetic field just long enough for a cup of coffee, and that’s enough. It’s a hopeful coda to the repeated tune of Donya’s life, one brief and delicate enough to still fit into Jalali’s tamped-down composition.

When Donya first gets the fortune-writing job, her boss gives her long-winded advice about the kind of thing people like to find in their cookies. Nothing too long and nothing too short. Not too obvious. Not too original. People want Goldilocks predictions. They’re comforting. They’re believable. They’re the difference between reading a promise that you’ll win the lottery, and a promise that you’ll have a nice first date. People don’t always want Goldilocks movies, but amid the melodramas and rom-coms, the IP blockbusters and action movies, Fremont’s easy flow and small scope provide the same reassurance (and opportunity for projection) as a small, optimistic piece of paper. Floating through the everyday isn’t going to be life-changing, but it’s still going to be life.

Director: Babak Jalali
Writer: Babak Jalali, Carolina Cavalli
Starring: Anaita Wali Zada, Avis See-tho, Eddie Tang, Hilda Schmelling, Jennifer McKay, Jeremy Allen White, Gregg Turkington, Siddique Ahmed, Taban Ibraz, Timur Nusratty
Release Date: August 25, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

Share Tweet Submit Pin