Sundance Film Festival/ Review : In Outstanding “Fremont” An Outsider Tries to Find Her Way

Sundance Film Festival/ Review : In Outstanding “Fremont” An Outsider Tries to Find Her Way

Most people have read the wise or strange messages of a Chinese fortune cookie, and perhaps wonder who actually wrote it. Whatever the message says it seems to leave you with a good feeling after the meal. The extraordinary film “Fremont”, a black and white gem at Sundance Film Festival 2023, gives you that sense of satisfaction. Yet the sly, gentle, and unpredictable film finds deadpan humor in darkness. It smells of both Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch.

We find ourselves in Fremont, California at a family-run Chinese fortune cookie factory. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) works here, putting cookies in plastic bags while listening to a desperate-seeking-for-love colleague. Donya is an Afghan refugee, a former translator for American troops in Kabul, which allowed her to leave Afghanistan but has left her with feelings of guilt. She is a quiet, observant 20-something woman with sleeping problems who lives by herself in an apartment complex with other Afghan refugees but prefers eating alone at a local restaurant and watching soap operas. When she gets promoted to write the actual fortune messages her routines change, and she decides to send out a different kind of message to the world. Well, at least to the people throughout the area.

What is clearly established from the first scenes is a unique kind of slow scale mood of alienation and immigration using a sly, deadpan humor. This quietly sensational film never loses its grip. Bafta-nominated director Babak Jalali, who was born in Iran and lives in London, is no stranger to A-list film festivals. Jalali and his DP Laura Valladao decided to make their film in black and white and say they were inspired by the photography of Graciela Iturbide and Shelby Lee Adams, as well as Béla Tarr’s film “Damnation”, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”. While the cinematography creates a sense of wonder and longing, the restrained and sly script written by Jalali and co-writer Carolina Cavalli is reminiscent of both Aki Kaurismäki’s and Jim Jarmusch’s work. But the modest story told with unhurried pacing with quietly comical rituals in every other scene, has its own distinctive voice.

Like many of Jarmusch’s and Kaurismäki’s films, “Fremont” tells the story of alienation, of a marginalized person on the fringes of society. Donya is yet to find her place in a strange, new world and her social life is basically non-existent. Sometimes she speaks to the restaurant owner, a woman in the building and her co-worker in the factory. But her loneliness is evident. She moves in a low-key manner among incurable outsiders and rootless seekers. Although she has an apartment and a steady job, Donya, like many of Jarmusch’s characters, is a wanderer. A seeker who doesn’t quite know where home is and who is searching for something new.

We know little about her troubled background in Kabul, which is alluded to her meeting with Dr. Antony (Gregg Turkington), whom she seeks out to prescribe sleeping pills for her insomnia. The peculiar doctor uses conversations masked as therapy sessions to understand her past and emotional burdens. These meetings are both touching and absurdly funny – especially when the doctor starts reading from Jack London’s “White Fang”, a tale of a wolf dog’s turbulent journey from wild animal to domesticated pet. But for Donya, and for the viewer, it is a tool to understand displacement. Stories of immigrants in the US have been told many times, in different shapes, but this one is not only refreshingly original, it also captures the pure essence of alienation.

The task to pull off the restrained role of Donya, often with a non-expressive face, is more difficult than it might seem. The debut of Anaita Wali Zada is a quiet wonder. The former national television presenter, herself forced to flee the Taliban after the fall of Kabul, delivers the droll lines with grace and presence – she could easily step out from a Éric Rohmer or Robert Bresson movie.

When her boss realizes her emotional depth, she gets promoted to write the messages in the fortune cookies herself. It’s an excellent move for the story and for Donya. It makes her leave the mundane life in town and to go on a road trip where she meets a charming, lonely auto chop owner played by Jeremy Allen White, a Golden Globe nominated actor known for “Shameless “and “The Bear”. The trip opens the film up and their endearing encounter is moving and beautiful in its simplicity. Every scene in this film gives a sense of surprise in the most unpredictable way. It gives a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange place, and how the past never leaves you.

Shown in the Next Section at Sundance Film Festival, where pure, bold works are distinguished by innovative and forward-thinking approaches to storytelling are screened. Fremont is the kind of small, clever film that feels like a huge discovery. Just like a message in a fortune cookie can be inspirational, this little treasure gives high hope for understated cinema.

Grade: A-

Check out more of Niclas’ articles.


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