The metatextual fortune cookie message (e.g. “Help! I’m being held hostage in a fortune cookie factory!”) is an obvious premise for a joke, indeed one so omnipresent that it has transitioned into the realm of urban legend. Babak Jalali’s Fremont takes this as a jumping off point and, though he does apply some of the whimsy that genesis suggests, he manages equally to examine the corridor of apocrypha with a disarming earnestness. The film follows Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan refugee working in a fortune cookie factory. Fremont takes a lackadaisical approach to plot: the moment functioning as the premise, in which Donya sends out a message in a fortune cookie, doesn’t occur until the middle of the film and has largely incidental consequences. But in exploring Donya’s relations with her coworkers, bosses, and Afghan neighbors, Jalali creates an affecting portrait.
Fremont’s black-and-white photography points less toward any sort of nostalgia for Hollywood classicism than it does to the early films of Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki. Each shot is precise, but they seem to communicate the energy of the individual moment more than contribute anything to the editing flow. Shot/reverse shots with wildly varying distances and isolated zooms lead to some disorientation, but it’s not an entirely displeasing effect. Eventually, it begins to feel of a piece with the film’s lightly stilted dialogue, which takes on a slightly more familiar form aligned with the more tasteful end of the indie quirk spectrum.
Where the film really takes off is in its performances. Specifically, two recognizable faces, Gregg Turkington (On Cinema) and Jeremy Allen White (The Bear), take on key supporting roles. Turkington plays a psychiatrist from whom Donya seeks a prescription for sleeping pills. His character initially appears to be a bureaucratic obstacle for Donya, as he refuses to let her take on the appointment of a neighbor uninterested in continuing treatment, and then becomes an absurdity: a psychiatrist who specializes in treating immigrants as a tribute to his idol — the title character of Jack London’s White Fang (who he is frequently eager to remind Donya is a wolf, not a dog). And though Turkington does indeed bring a delightfully specific comedic energy to the film, peaking in a bit of physical comedy where he attempts to open a fortune cookie package with his teeth, there’s a deep pathos in the tension between his character’s desire to help Donya and his myopia. When he finds out she has been promoted to writing the messages for the fortune cookies, he encourages her to use it as both a creative and therapeutic outlet. But when he tries the exercise himself, he is more proud of his own originality than he is capable of communicating the efficacy of the therapeutic process. White, meanwhile, appears in the film’s final stretch, and affects a similar tension in a simultaneous display of brooding movie star swagger and overwhelming loneliness.
Jalali has frequently worked with non-professional actors, and in the lead Zada is generally on the reactive end of scenes. She grounds the performances of Turkington and White, as well as other first-time actors with more colorful characters. Zada is herself an Afghan refugee, and the film is certainly more glaringly topical than most of its low-key indie progenitors. It’s never didactic in its messaging, but neither is the political content cordoned off to the realm of extraneous subtext. And it’s this, the way that Jalali imbues the politics of film’s content into the essential conception and construction of the film, that makes a project that is already quite charming feel consequential, all without ever engaging in self-congratulation.
DIRECTOR: Babak Jalali; CAST: Anaita Wali Zada, Jeremy Allen White, Gregg Turkington; DISTRIBUTOR: Music Box Films; IN THEATERS: August 25; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 28 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 12.