Fremont is a darkly comedic and reliably heartfelt meditation on immigrant culture in all its overwhelming ubiquity.
Sometimes, no matter how well-written and powerful a story is, the huge disparity between understanding and empathy can make it difficult for audiences to fully engage with a character whose life is nothing like their own. There are ways to make characters relatable and likable, but the apparent truth remains that certain ideas can only be fully understood by those who’ve experienced them. Introducing his innovative drama Fremont at its world premiere, director Babak Jalali addressed this concern and revealed that his film, while centering around a specific culture, is a story that he wants to speak to the entire world. So he left it with one very clear instruction: when you want to, laugh.
Fremont takes this idea and runs with it – it’s not the first immigrant story to use humor as a coping mechanism to address tragedy, but it’s the first I’ve ever seen to incite laughter in the audience as a doorway toward empathy. Jalali understands that audiences won’t fully lose themselves in his story, because it’s so specific and pointed, so he forces them to laugh instead. This helps the viewer to build a strong emotional connection with Donya (Anaiti Wali Zada) as she stumbles at every hurdle life can throw at her, but the film is never laughing at her. It’s laughing at the world around her, and by doing that with such confidence, Fremont uses comedy to incite emotion just as effectively as any great drama I’ve ever seen.
Donya is an Afghan woman and ex-translator for the American military, now immigrated to the USA and working at a fortune cookie factory. It’s not a plot-heavy film at all, with the majority of the scenes following Donya as she explores the daily struggles of life at work, at home, and with her therapist Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington). It touches on countless ideas about how difficult it can be to fully immerse oneself in a new culture, particularly after leaving family and friends behind at home. But Fremont isn’t loaded with emotion or drama in the way you’d expect – instead, it’s seeping with deadpan comedy and awkward situations that highlight how hilariously clueless most people are when it comes to interacting with immigrants and their stories.
What’s remarkable about Fremont is that every single joke lands – there isn’t a moment when it’s not trying to be funny in some subtle way, even though its sense of humor is incredibly dry. It achieves this unique comedy through some really talented directing and editing, which allow scenes to run much longer than audiences would expect, forcing us to linger in the awkward silences and inconveniences that would usually be cut from a scene. Opting for such a dry sense of humor was an incredibly bold move, because if audiences just don’t get it then Fremont falls completely flat, but luckily it works and the cinema was filled with genuine laughter from start to finish.
The immigrant story at the heart of Fremont is also much deeper and richer than most would dare to go – it deals with themes that I’ve personally never seen handled in these kinds of dramas before, forcing me to ask questions that had never passed through my mind before. Donya is such a complicated character: she served against her country in the war, left her entire family behind, and now struggles to forgive herself after she’s finally presented with the opportunities she’s sacrificed everything to find.
It creates immense sympathy and consideration for this character, bringing the audience to care about her misplaced guilt, romantic disassociation and patriotic conflicts before even realizing that they do. And that’s why it doesn’t matter that certain stories are too specific to fully understand: they don’t require understanding, just the creation of discussions and questions that wouldn’t have otherwise been unearthed.
Fremont premiered at the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival in August. The film was released in select US theaters on August 25 and will be out in UK cinemas on September 15.