' ' Cinema Romantico: Fremont

Wednesday, December 06, 2023


In its monochrome deadpan and preference for mood over plot, Babak Jalali’s “Fremont” has frequently drawn comparisons to American indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. That’s not wrong, but I kept thinking of another movie in dreamy black and white, Stephane Lafleur’s similarly Jarmuschian “You’re Sleeping, Nicole” (2014). Suffering from insomnia, the eponymous character spends much of that movie virtually sleepwalking. Nicole’s insomnia, however, stems from nothing more than youthful indolence while the sleeplessness of “Fremont’s” Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) is rooted in displacement. She is an Afghan refugee who has temporarily resettled in an apartment complex in the East San Francisco Bay city of Fremont with a host of other Afghan refugees. Her family is never seen, barely mentioned, though the refugees never emerge as a surrogate family. No, in Jalali’s head-on shots and his minimalist plot, Donya’s isolation remains paramount, so much so that even a late movie passage in which she meets an auto mechanic (Jeremy Allen White) feels less about real love than comfort in a shared loneliness. 

Donya works in a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco and is promoted from stuffing fortunes into cookies to authoring the fortunes themselves when the elderly fortune writer drops dead in front of her computer, which is not merely a plot detail but evocative of “Fremont’s” dry comedy style, like death is just the ultimate clocking out. If a job writing fortunes sounds like an overly precious form of employment typical of a certain sort of indie movie, fear not. Jalali proves shrewder. Donya’s boss (Eddie Tang) speaks like The Sphinx of “Mystery Men” speaking like a fortune cookie. Even more crucially, while we see Donya’s fortunes providing people a bit of levity throughout the day in a handful of intercut scenes, such surface level sagacity functions as juxtaposition to her almost incurable well of grief and trauma.

Though Donya goes to see a therapist (Gregg Turkington), these scenes generally function as droll comedy bits, and Jalali proves less interested in fashioning explanations or solutions for his main character’s PTSD than merely living it out on screen as a sort of waking dream through so many still, almost somnambulant frames. Though there are flashes of expression in Donya, like listening to her therapist read from Jack London’s White Fang, Jalali mostly guides his first-time actor to a performance of supreme restraint, a blankness, a virtual nothingness. One moment in which we see Donya from above, laying in a conspicuous single bed, boxed in, is a God eye’s shot that suggests rather than being looked over, she’s staring into the void. 

When Donya includes her phone number on a fortune along with the humble admission that she is desperate for a dream, that is essentially where she is sending it, into the void. Though Donya does not see where this fortune ends up, we do, and if that might make where it leads seem inevitable, it is not, “Fremont” culminating in a road trip as shaggy dog story with a punchline so cruel and quietly rendered that it takes the life out of you. It does not, however, take the life out of Donya. Indeed, she turns the punchline on its head, and “Fremont” ends without really ending at all, concluding on a sparkling image bringing to mind - what else? - a fortune: relish the transitions in your life - they will happen regardless. 

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