“Fremont” takes its title from the Bay Area city of the same name. Often called Little Kabul, it’s home to one of the largest enclaves of Afghans in the United States, with many immigrants gravitating toward it for a sense of community. That’s what Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) is searching for: Community. Connection. Love. These are difficult pursuits for anyone in these atomized times, but especially for Donya, a young refugee and former translator for the American military.
Being in Fremont, living among other Afghans, isn’t a huge comfort for Donya. Perhaps because her memories of home aren’t cozy — in fact, they fill her with dread and guilt. The details of what she left behind aren’t the focus here. It’s enough to know that they keep her awake at night; that she prefers the lightly numbing, Zenlike routine of her unglamorous job at a fortune-cookie factory in San Francisco.
The British Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali captures Donya’s existential plight with the dry, contemplative mood of a film by Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki, both masters of deadpan dramedies infused with melancholia. Shooting in milky black-and-white, Jalali situates Donya in a world of outcasts and loners — people disaffected and worn out yet also capable of compassion and change. Salim (Siddique Ahmed), a fellow insomniac who lives in Donya’s apartment complex, gives her his slot with a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), who sees him pro bono.
An appointment isn’t like a movie ticket that you can just hand over to a friend, Dr. Anthony explains, fussing over protocol. Donya persuades him to take her on anyway, beginning a series of droll (if not exactly helpful) consultations. After Donya is promoted to fortune writer at the factory, her boss’s vengeful wife (Jennifer McKay) discovers that Donya has written her phone number on the paper in one cookie. She calls for Donya’s firing. Her husband (Eddie Tang) sees it differently: If anything, Donya’s attempt to reach out to another lost soul makes her precisely the kind of person who should be inventing dreamy maxims.
Jalali and his co-writer, Carolina Cavalli, point to the ways in which bureaucratic rigidity and cutthroat capitalism can cripple us. They stop short of reducing the film to a story about social injustices while deftly steering clear of an overly cutesy tone and messaging about our shared humanity, or whatever. Expressionistic interludes — shadows mingling on a stairwell wall, a globe spinning at a blurred speed — capture the uncanny nature of social interactions among the displaced and disoriented.
Jalali complements this wistful mood with a jazzy score from Mahmood Schricker, which, driven by sitar and low-pitched horn, seems to cut through the dead air of Donya’s impassive encounters. If the humor in these moments doesn’t always click, it’s because there’s only so much awkward-giggle mileage in Jalali’s drawn-out takes of two people talking face-to-face.
A first-time actor who fled Afghanistan in 2021, Wali Zada emits a natural warmth and poignancy as she delivers intentionally vacant line readings. This flattens some of the wryer scenes but makes Donya’s measured expressions of longing and hopefulness sing. She’s what makes the final act — which features a solitary mechanic played by Jeremy Allen White (of “The Bear”) — so moving and romantic. Jalali maintains a mysterious ambiguity, but Wali Zada conveys what matters: Donya has found somewhere she wants to be.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.