wed 19/06/2024

Fremont review - lovely wry portrait of an Afghan refugee looking for love | reviews, news & interviews

Fremont review - lovely wry portrait of an Afghan refugee looking for love

Fremont review - lovely wry portrait of an Afghan refugee looking for love

Stunning debut from refugee Anaita Wali Zada gives Babak Jalali's film an inner glow

Commanding focus: Anaita Wali Zada as Donya

A cameo by Jeremy Allen White wouldn’t usually excite interest, but the star of Disney+’s The Bear is big box-office now, so his presence in Fremont, however brief, will probably guarantee it an audience. There the curious will also find a gem from the Iranian-born director Babak Jalali and a serenely powerful debut performance by Anaita Wali Zada, who gives this simple-seeming project an inner glow.

Fremont is a city in California’s Bay Area that has become home to a sizeable population of Afghan refugees. Donya (Wali Zada) is one such, a former translator for the US Army who has had to leave everything behind in Kabul to save her skin. In her austere apartment block are other Afghans with a tragic story to tell; one man is still as conservative as the Taliban who turned his family’s lives upside down, his wife as downtrodden as before.

Donya chooses to commute into San Francisco to get away from the other refugees. There, her luxuriant hair caged in a hairnet, she wraps fortune-cookies for a middle-aged Chinese couple, immigrants from an older intake. He is all Confucian soundbites; she is a mean-eyed sourpuss who runs the business, and him, with an iron hand. Alone at a computer sits an ancient Chinese lady, also hairnetted, who taps out the messages inside the cookies, day by day finding upbeat fortunes for their eaters. When Donya inherits her job, it’s not long before she is using a cookie message to help her trigger a romance. 

Enter (eventually) Jeremy Allen White (pictured below) as Daniel, a car mechanic. His delicate but complicated presence often seems about to bust out into shambolic comedy, but he brings a lightness and sweetness to the scenario. He’s polite but skittery, whereas Wali Zada is focused and composed behind her often impassive mask of a face, staring out with dark unblinking eyes that seem to take in and understand all, however alien. Jalali allows the camera to rest on her sleepless body in bed, a strikingly beautiful portrait of a handsome young woman, hoping for love.Jeremy Allen White in Fremont

By sheer determination Donya lands sessions about her insomnia and anxiety with a white middle-aged male psychiatrist (deadpan Gregg Turkington), who prescribes her sleeping pills but is more intent on using her sessions to describe to her his favourite book about an immigrant, Jack London’s White Fang – a choice that says a lot about his self-preoccupation and insensitivity, though it’s also a pointer to Donya’s plight. White Fang’s rejection by his mother and his subsequent integration into a new household speak of a future Donya thinks she wants but cannot easily reach. Does she really want to renounce her homeland? 

In a typical understated but telling detaii, she tries to watch a soap opera with an older man who owns a cafe, but finally decides the series has been going too long and she will never catch up; eventually he gives up watching it too. Her shrink, meanwhile, continues to conduct exercises in their sessions that seem more geared to assisting his own mental health than hers. 

What begins as a simple monochrome study (in 4:3 format) of a young lost woman deepens and widens with each sequence as director Jalali wryly probes the main terms of his script (co-written with Carolina Cavalli): belonging, happiness, mental stability. Is Donya’s shrink really more balanced than she is? Is her unhappy colleague Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) really less lonely, for all her apparent sociability? When self-confessed loner Daniel enters the scene, we see another layer added to the portrait: is he really “at home” in his home country? 

The pace of the film is slow but purposeful. Stretches of it are almost wordless; and when music appears it is strategic, such as the Hawaiian song about diamond days Joanna sings as a karaoke number, which weaves in and out of the story, or the bursts of cool jazz with a Middle Eastern flavour. Images and tonality are allowed to speak for themselves; there are no trumpeted messages. And this inscrutability lends itself to a lovely enigmatic, dry humour, where the audience happily supplies the punchlines.

The same with the film’s ending, which at first sight seems inconclusive but on reflection really isn’t. Donya has moments of sadness, but she is also resilient and brave, we realise, a woman with deep reserves. No pat resolution is required, no romcom finale; more importantly, Jalali leaves us with the sense of a vital, complex process of adaptation finally getting underway. Whereas Donya was once haunted by visions of herself in a barren landscape, our last sight of her is in a classic dappled glade, the sun peeping through the trees.

The film's inscrutability lends itself to a lovely enigmatic, dry humour, where the audience happily supplies the punchlines


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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