Woman lying in bed
Fremont. Photo: Roxie Theater

Until I watched Fremont (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Thursday, Aug. 24),
I didn’t realize I’d been yearning for a feel-good movie with at least a hint of a happy ending. If you, too, are in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, this is — despite outward appearances — your film.

Indeed, Fremont is very far from being a typical Hollywood slice of inspirational silliness or emotionally hollow romantic comedy. To the contrary, it’s a full-frame black and white comedy-drama with trappings of the nouvelle vague; a gentle and thoughtful character study examining some extremely likable, and yet strangely unknowable, people.

Screen neophyte Anaita Wali Zada plays the enigmatic Donya, who worked as a U.S. Army translator before the fall of Kabul and is now a refugee living in Fremont (yes, the Fremont just down the road), the city that one of the largest Afghan communities in the United States call home. Such is the concentration of Afghans in Fremont that Donya, eager to see something else of America, has taken a job at a San Francisco fortune cookie factory (while much of the film was shot on location in the titular town, the factory interiors were actually filmed at Oakland’s Fortune Factory, located on 12th Street in Chinatown).

Spending her days filling unbaked pieces of cookie dough with hortatory messages, Donya works side by side with co-worker Joanna (Hilda Schmelling), who’s desperately trying to line up a blind date for her friend. Donya, however, is more interested in getting an appointment with a doctor who can prescribe something for her insomnia. Finagling her way into the office of shrink (and Jack London enthusiast) Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), Donya slowly begins to open up, while providing the overly sensitive shrink with some beneficial therapy of her own.

Gaining in confidence, Donya is finally ready for a blind date — albeit one in Bakersfield, a four-hour drive away. The date, however, has some unexpected surprises in store for her — including a meet cute with a coffee-slinging gas jockey (Jeremy Allen White), which threatens to take her life in a new direction.

Directed by Iranian-born Babak Jalali, Fremont is utterly charming from start to finish: a low-budget delight that could truly connect with general audiences if given half a chance. There was a time when such films could crossover from the art-house to the multiplex, but those days, sadly, are long gone.

Indeed, there are echoes of two such crossover hits in Fremont — both of which, coincidentally, deal with immigrant life: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). From the Academy ratio black and white cinematography to Zada’s Seberg-ian fourth-wall breaking to Mahmoud Schricker’s terrific score, an artful blend of cool jazz and traditional Afghan music, similarities abound. There’s also an uncredited Boots Riley cameo and the unexpected appearance of Vashti’s Bunyan’s late ’60s folk song Just Another Diamond Day, which — while I’m not a big fan of folk music — works perfectly in the story’s context.

One thing I’m certain of: Fremont is going to rank very high on my end-of year favorite films list. Give it a chance, and I bet it’ll make it on your list, too.

Correction: Filmmaker Babak Jalali’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...