“The fortune you’re looking for is in another cookie,” reads one of the many custom fortune cookie messages featured in “Fremont,” a lovely, low-budget mood piece with a hypnotically deadpan temperament, which flew largely below the radar at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. While Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali’s easygoing fable-like movie serves up such oracular tidbits in abundance, this one defines his central character best. She is Donya (real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada), a lonesome and restless Afghan immigrant working at a family-owned fortune cookie factory in San Francisco by day, and enduring severe insomnia by night, in a Fremont apartment complex that also houses other immigrants from her motherland.
Donya can’t sleep for several reasons, though the aforementioned morsel recognizes at least one: What she’s looking for in life seems to be elsewhere. It’s certainly not in her dead-end job or uncomplicated social life. Still, most of Donya’s sleeplessness seems to stem from something far more troubling: survivor’s guilt. Once a translator for the American troops back in Kabul, Donya had been able to flee Afghanistan through her post, settling in a country where some don’t even know the proper way of addressing her identity and heritage. (“Afghan,” she corrects one of those well-meaning but uninformed people who erroneously call her “Afghanistani.”)
While her new life isn’t necessarily terrible, self-inflected feelings of shame haunt Donya. Does she deserve to find happiness abroad when people are still dying back home? Is she worthy of making connections with good people, much less daring to dream about finding love?
Donya is at least surrounded by nice acquaintances, including various delightful co-workers who make smalltalk about their daydreams to win a million dollars and then invest it all in a community pool. Elsewhere, her neighbors Suleyman and Salim can be trusted for philosophical pep talks at all hours. She’s friendly with an amusing waiter at the unpopular restaurant Donya frequents, who tries to hide his affinity for Turkish soap operas. There is also the kindly Chinese couple, Donya’s employers, who finally promote the young woman from wrapping the cookies to writing the messages within. (“People with memories write beautifully,” the patriarch wisely and rightly suggests.) And finally, Donya can lean a little on her newfound therapist (Gregg Turkington), a pro-bono dispenser of advice who (in a hilarious scene) relies on the Jack London novel “White Fang” a little too much, to help alleviate his patient’s ongoing restlessness.
Shot in misty black-and-white and co-scripted by Jalali and Carolina Cavalli with a straight-faced sense of humor, “Fremont” is a quasi-comedy that strikes a vibe akin to the films of Jim Jarmusch. The biggest achievement of Jalali here is the precise tone that he strikes with his mild-mannered movie: never cutesy (an especially impressive feat considering the film’s whimsically Sundance-y premise), and always several feet deeper in its themes and deliberations around human isolation than meets the eye. Communicating with expressively wide-set eyes and the resolute gaze of someone who always knows and observes more than they admit, Zada’s performance helps achieve the film’s tricky balance, which Jalali aids with smart framing choices and the use of negative space. As the film’s wistful lead, Zada gives the minor-key impression of an intriguing personality worth getting to know better and, who knows, maybe even solve the mysteries of the universe together.
In the largely crescendo-free “Fremont,” the story’s flashiest spike happens when Donya finally decides to use her new power as a fortune cookie writer to send out messages to the world. Her pleas vary from flat-out optimistic and encouraging, to a little desperate, one of which finally gets her in a little trouble with her bosses. But despite the story’s overall monotony, Jalali thankfully proves that he knows how to end a film on a note that feels inevitably right. In its final chapter, “Fremont” rewards the viewer with a splendid cameo: Jeremy Allen White (yes, everyone’s favorite chef, thanks to “The Bear”) appears as a handsome and inquisitive mechanic who’s helpful to Donya — and who might turn out to be something more. In its final moments, the potency of “Fremont” sneaks up on you. You go in reluctant and even skeptical, and come out wondering how and why you’re moved to tears.