Fremont Review: an Afghan Translator Finds Her Voice in a Jarmusch-inspired Comedy

2 months ago Editorials 24

Small-scale, subdued mood pieces that meander until the last half-hour, when something big finally transpires, are a common type of film that receives a platform at Sundance and then typically disappears thereafter.

Your enjoyment of the subduedly amusing character study Fremont will be contingent on your tolerance for this model. Still, there is plenty to admire in the rarely covered Afghan immigrant milieu and in director Babak Jalali and co-writer Carolina Cavalli’s amusing decision to place their child protagonist in a family-owned Chinese fortune cookie factory.

Anaita Wali Zada, a former national television presenter forced to flee the Taliban following the fall of Kabul, is cast as Donya, a translator at U.S. Army facilities, by London-based Iranian filmmaker Jalali. This “treasonous” history wins her the animosity of a neighbor living in the same housing complex as Afghan immigrants in the film’s title city in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jalali maintains a close focus on Donya as she works on the short assembly line at Hand-Made Fortune Cookies and returns home to usually sleepless evenings, stopping frequently at a small café where she watches soap operas and receives the sage advice of the old cook.


When a second neighbour decides to miss his government-funded psychiatry appointment, Donya poses as him to obtain sleeping medication. The therapist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), is hesitant to accept the switch in his pro bono immigrant visa programme slots. Donya will not accept no for an answer.

Eventually, during their weekly meetings, Dr. Anthony begins to read from Jack London’s White Fang, the story of a mixed-breed wolf-tumultuous dog’s transition from wild animal to domesticated pet, which may be intended to represent Donya’s challenging adjustment to American society. Or not.

This aspect of the script feels half-baked, and these encounters, frankly, become tedious — also because, in a cast comprised primarily of nonprofessional actors, the relatively experienced actor-comedian Turkington is arguably the least successful at maintaining the overall balance between deadpan and melancholy. The emotionless performances presented in fixed-camera shots work better in the fortune cookie factory, particularly when an older coworker dies unexpectedly at her station and Donya is promoted to writing the fortunes and cutting the paper strips to be inserted into the cookie dough.

This transition, with its weird hint of supreme power, also increases the narrative pace by allowing Donya to send a message to the world, implying a yearning she is otherwise hesitant to express.

The unintended consequence of her rash action is a hilarious misunderstanding that brings Donya out of town, where she meets a mechanic at a secluded petrol station who may be even more lonely than she is.

The breakout star of The Bear, Jeremy Allen White, portrays the affable grease monkey with subdued natural charisma and a nervously ingratiating manner that pop out from beneath his timidity. His presence invigorates the film so significantly that it lends Fremont greater weight retroactively.


That is not to imply that the film is uninteresting before to that time. There are other instances of sensitive understatements, such as Donya pondering whether it is inappropriate for her to desire love while people in her home nation continue to suffer. A touching conversation with her Chinese-American supervisor (Eddie Tang) occurs when he uses the fact that their countries share a border as a circuitous way of stating that there are lonely people everywhere.

Fremont features enough poignantly observed interludes to make the whole larger than the sum of its parts, despite being a flimsy film that is at times nearly aimless and self-consciously eccentric.

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