Directed by: Babak Jalali
Written by: Babak Jalali, Carolina Cavalli
Starring: Anaita Wali Zada, Gregg Turkington, Jeremy Allen White
Released: May 2, 2024
Grade: A-


The inspiration for Iranian-British filmmaker Babak Jalali (Radio Dreams) came from the real-life stories of Afghan refugees living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  These people had risked their lives working as translators for American soldiers during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and in return, they were granted safe passage to the United States.  From there however, they had been largely forgotten about and left to fend for themselves.

Jalali’s film is centred on the fictional Donya, beautifully played by newcomer Anaita Wali Zada in her first acting role.  She’s a former Afghan translator who emigrated to California eight months ago and now works in a Chinese fortune cookie production factory in the city of Fremont.  It’s a lonely existence.  She resides in a tiny apartment (her bedroom only has room for a single bed), lives off a meagre income, and has no family to spend time with (they’re all back in Afghanistan).  Her only friend is a chatty work colleague, and they’ll often exchange text messages of an evening.

We’ve all got a different sense of humour but if you like your comedies dark and dry, Fremont is for you!  The inner workings of the fortune cookie company are hilarious as Donya interacts with a semi-deluded boss, an elderly lady who can barely use a computer, and a broken coffee machine.  Laughs are also drawn from her appointments with an offbeat, book-loving therapist (Turkington) who reluctantly prescribes sleeping pills to help with her insomnia.  Even the innocuous dinner scenes in a rundown restaurant (she’s the only customer) deserve a shout out.

These chuckles are balanced seamlessly with the more dramatic themes of loneliness and self-worth.  It is sometimes hard to “get a read” on Donya given her emotionless expressions but as the film progresses, we get a better sense of her character’s mental health.  It really hits home in the final half-hour as she meets a mechanic, delicately played by recent Emmy winner Jeremy Allen White (The Bear), who is in similar need of conversation and companionship.  It has been a while since I was cheering so strongly for two characters to get together – they just need to harness the courage and open up.

At the recent Independent Spirit Awards, Fremont won the John Cassavetes Award which goes to the year’s best film with a budget of less than $1 million.  Shot in distinctive black and white, Fremont is a funny, big-hearted reminder that you don’t need big dollars to make a great movie.