A young Afghan immigrant finds herself adrift in San Francisco in Babak Jalali's poetic fourth feature.
The city of Fremont in California has the largest Afghan population in the US – some 30,000 call the city home, leading to its affectionate nickname of Little Kabul. For Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), a twentysomething transplant who moved to America after working as a translator for the US Army in Afghanistan, it’s a strange sort of purgatory. Although she’s friendly with her neighbours and the local proprietor of her favourite restaurant, it’s not somewhere she seems to feel particularly at home. A sort of ‘otherness’ hangs over the place, where her neighbour’s husband resents her in the same way many did back home, viewing her translation work as an act of collusion with the American government.
As such, Donya seems to feel a little more comfortable at work – she travels 40 miles each way to a San Francisco fortune cookie, operated by a kindly Chinese gentleman and his more prickly wife. Her colleague Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) is the closest thing Donya has to a peer, and for her part, encourages Donya to date, sensing loneliness in her. Donya is more interested in getting a good night’s sleep, and after a minor case of medical fraud, manages to find a psychiatrist, who she immediately asks for sleeping pills. Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington) is a diligent sort though, and coaxes Donya to confront her memories of her former life, as well as the root cause of her insomnia.
Donya is reluctant to think about the past but equally seems dissatisfied with her present life. A new role at work – writing the fortunes for cookies, rather than just packaging them – in tandem with Dr. Anthony’s sessions presents her with the opportunity to reevaluate, as Babak Jalali’s film meanders through her monotony in hazy black and white. While the cinematography is evocative of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Coffee and Cigarettes, the script is more similar to Paterson in scope, meandering through the monotony of blue-collar American life and the found family communities within it. Donya is a withholding character, but Zada imbues her with awkward charm.
It’s an intimate dramedy that strikes a delicate balance between melancholy and wryness (a scene in which Joanna performs a karaoke version of Vashti Bunyan’s Diamond Day should be awkward, but ends up unexpectedly moving) and while perhaps a little slight in content, Fremont is a stylish, sweet evolution for Jalali, and a poignant reflection on the modern immigrant experience.
Published 6 Jul 2023
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