Fremont movie review: surprising refugee comedy drama is a thing of wonder

 ( )
( )

Winsome. Too kooky by half. I thought I had Babak Jalali’s indie dramedy pegged. Yet, midway through the Iranian-British director’s fourth feature, things take a turn for the wondrous. The tale of a displaced and love-hungry Afghan, Fremont isn’t quite as churning as Celine Song’s rightly-raved-about Past Lives. Were audiences to be connected to a weep-o-meter, however, it would score highly (because it triggers tears of joy). I’m jealous of anyone seeing it for the first time.

Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), who once translated for the US military in Kabul, is an insomniac with zero tolerance for surly men (she’s not keen on cockroaches, either). Though living in the Bay Area city of Fremont, she works in a family-run, San Francisco factory and, after a hasty promotion, finds herself dreaming up the platitudinous “fortunes” that come in Chinese restaurant cookies.

If you’ve ever wondered, “Who writes these things?”, here’s your answer (someone on a low wage). Anyway, the film’s pivotal moment arrives when a pithy message Donya has smuggled into a cookie gets a response. We have information she doesn’t. But we’re still in for a shock.

Anaita Wali Zada in Fremont
Anaita Wali Zada in Fremont

The script (co-written by Jalali) is especially sharp when it comes to examining the ways that refugees get pigeon-holed as saints or sinners. After being told that Afghans “seem nice, friendly people”, Donya replies, “We are, I’m just not a good example”.

With her chunky cheekbones and cooly appraising eyes, Zada often resembles the young Scarlett Johansson. A former journalist and refugee, she’s never had an acting lesson in her life, which makes you wonder why people waste money on drama school. Her off-kilter naturalness is awesome, most obviously in her scenes with Jeremy Allen White (as Daniel, a jangled, James Dean-ish mechanic).

White, the star of shouty TV melodrama The Bear, is widely viewed as a sex god. Let’s agree to agree that the 32 year old is not atrocious looking and that his restrained yet high-wire performance in Fremont is very special.

So many of the “minor” characters also prove memorable. Gregg Turkington, for example, creeps up on us as wayward shrink Dr Anthony (the latter’s reaction to a seemingly innocuous paragraph in Jack London’s White Fang is both poignant and hysterically funny).

Fremont (shot in black and white) looks as pretty as a Jim Jarmusch picture. I assumed I’d seen it all before, but being proved wrong is the best.

Fremont is in cinemas from September 15