The Spool / Festivals
SXSW 2023: Fremont, Until Branches Bend, & Mustache
A trio of narrative films explore the notions of trying to fit and struggling with being cast out.
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A trio of narrative films explore the notions of trying to fit and struggling with being cast out.

I must confess that when I read the program guide listing for Babak Jalali’s Fremont, I came perilously close to skipping it. Its description made it sound like the kind of movie carefully cultivated in a lab somewhere to play at festivals. It sounded like it had the combination of heartfelt drama and quirkiness delivered in spades audiences respond so favorably to. Thankfully, I decided to take a chance on it anyway. However dubious it may have sounded in its three-sentence program summation, it proves deeply engrossing when fully experienced. 

The film centers on Donya (newcomer Anaita Wali Zada). Previous to the film’s start she served as a translator for the U.S. military in her homeland of Afghanistan. Now relocated to the small town of Fremont, California, she lives in a complex populated by other Afghan immigrants, not all of whom are especially friendly toward her. She commutes daily to San Francisco for her job in a fortune cookie factory. When not at work, she keeps to herself. Outside of a co-worker at the factory, some neighbors, and the waiter at the perpetually empty restaurant where she eats, she hardly interacts with anyone.  

Unable to sleep, she seeks out a psychiatrist (Gregg Turkington) for a sleeping pill prescription. When that interaction is completed, she continues to visit him regularly. Their sessions touch on everything from the Jack London classic White Fang to her suppressed guilt over escaping Afghanistan safely when so many didn’t. Between these sessions and a timely promotion at the factory—the owner suspects she might be the ideal person to write the fortunes—Donya slowly begins to come out of her shell. She even begins to accept the possibility of love, as evidenced by her accepting an invitation for a blind date. It does not, to put it mildly, go as expected.

SXSW 2023 Narrative Features (SXSW)
(Sundance Institute)

The main reason why a basic description of Fremont—even mine—sounds a tad twee is that a simple summary can’t convey what makes it work so well. First and foremost, there is the knockout performance from Zada. She beautifully conveys both Donya’s quiet sense of guilt-fueled alienation and her gradual efforts to reconnect with the world around her. An especially charming scene finds her rehearsing the motions for her upcoming date while alone in her apartment. Her interactions with Turkington are inspired as well. They lead to some of the film’s funniest and most touching moments.  

Jalali moves the story along at a measured pace. It evokes Donya’s sense of ennui and unspoken longing for something more. It’s a sense further heightened by the starkly striking black-and-white photography. The only time the movie stumbles is in the final scenes. Featuring a brief appearance by Jeremy Allen White as a mechanic Donya met on the blind date journey, they’re okay on their own. Compared to the rest of Fremont, however, they seem a little too neat and conventional. Until then, though, the movie is a charming, moving meditation on love, guilt, and grief. It’s well worth seeking out, even if program blurbs suggest otherwise. 

Another film about a young woman dealing with personal isolation, albeit in a darker and more dramatic key, is the feature debut of writer-director Sophie Jarvis, Until Branches Bend. Set in a small town in rural Canada where the peach groves and cannery are the backbone of the local economy, the film focuses on Robin (Grace Glowicki). She’s a mostly introverted sort working at the cannery and having an affair with her married boss (Lochlyn Munro). One day, she finds a hole in a peach from which a strange bug emerges. Capturing it, Robin brings it to her boss. He and his superiors reassure her it’s nothing to worry about. Still, they urge her to tell no one else. 

SXSW 2023 Narrative Features (SXSW)

Unable to take their word for it, Robin investigates, becoming convinced it is a highly invasive beetle species. When she brings a picture of the beetle to a scientist, it starts a chain reaction. Finally, an investigation forces the groves and the cannery to shut down. The town goes into a panic and makes Robin a local pariah.  

This may sound like the basis for an Erin Bockovich-style drama of a lone woman finding the strength within her to take on the powers that be. However, Until Branches Bend does not quite go down that particular path. This iteration depicts Robin as someone a little off right from the start; someone who cannot hold up under the pressure and scrutiny. Too often, she acts as her own worst enemy. Her obsession with proving herself in the face of the naysayers threatens to tip over into total mental disintegration.  

Glowicki’s gripping portrayal of Robin as a walking open nerve significantly helps this interesting take on the formula. Admittedly, there are times when this approach may prove a bit frustrating for some viewers. A subplot involving an unplanned pregnancy, in particular, stands out. Still, for the most part, this is a fairly well-made drama about the price paid for doing the right thing. It will stick in the mind afterward, especially the next time you bite into a peach. 

On a much lighter note, Imran J. Khan’s Mustache is a coming-of-age story that, while familiar enough in broad strokes, contains sufficient intriguing details and winning performances to be a definite crowd-pleaser. Indeed, the film did win the festival’s Audience Award for Narrative Feature. 

Atharva Verma stars as Ilyas, a 13-year-old Pakistani-American kid living in San Jose with his family in the mid-1990s. He’s struggling with embarrassment over the mustache that sprouted on his face at age 10. His parents (Rizwan Manji and Meesha Shafi) refuse to let him shave off due to tradition.  

SXSW 2023 Narrative Features (SXSW)

When he gets into a fight at his Islamic school, he loses his scholarship. As a result, his parents decide to enroll him in the local public high school. This inspires him to go into a low-key form of rebellion in the hopes that his worried parents will return him to his old school. One of these attempts—making up a fake relationship with older classmate Liz (Melody Cao), whom he develops genuine feelings for after all—leads him to follow her into a drama class (with the teacher played by authentic mid-90s icon Alicia Silverstone) that allows him to find new ways to explore and come to terms with all the feelings stirring inside of him. 

The film marks Khan’s feature debut as a writer-director. It is perhaps not surprising then that it has a number of common first-time filmmaker pitfalls. The basic story is not particularly original, the narrative is sometimes uneven, and some secondary characters could have used some more fleshing out. This is especially true of Ilyas’s overworked and financially strapped parents, who seem intriguing at first but remain underdeveloped.  

On the other hand, Verma’s performance is enjoyable. Some details regarding Ilyas’s attempts to fit in will ring true to viewers, whether they are Muslim or not. As a depiction of a young man trying to figure out who he is and find his place among several different worlds, Mustache has its charms. The movie is worth a look, though many viewers may come away from it wishing there had been a little more to it in the end.