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Sundance 2008: “The Visitor.”

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"You can't just take people away like that!"
Thomas McCarthy’s films sound pretty terrible in summary. "The Station Agent": Lonely, train-obsessed dwarf moves to rural New Jersey and befriends a depressed artist and a Cuban hot dog vendor. "The Visitor": Lonely economics professor befriends the illegal immigrant couple who have sublet his New York apartment, unwittingly without his knowledge. But McCarthy, who continues to act himself, has this extraordinary way with actors and an ability to strip precariously precious scenarios of their cuteness. "The Visitor" doesn’t exude "The Station Agent"’s unassuming yet awesome appeal — it’s a good deal more forced, with some jarring, heavy-handed moments toward the end. Still, it has a degree of love and respect for its characters that’s hard to equal and impossible to shrug off, one that manages to overcome the film’s earnest but too obvious agenda.

Richard Jenkins (the dad from "Six Feet Under") is Walter Vale, a widower waiting out the rest of his life in comfortable isolation in Connecticut, sleepwalking his way through the same econ class he’s taught for years and hiding behind the excuse of a book he’s supposedly close to completing. When he’s forced to go to New York to present a paper at a conference, he discovers that a couple has been living in the apartment he still keeps there, a Syrian man named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who’ve been scammed into subletting the place by someone who didn’t actually have a right to do so. They hurriedly pack up and leave, but have no place to go, and Walter eventually brings them in from the sidewalk and offers to let them stay with him for a few days.

There’s a squick factor to any scenario in which vibrant, idealized people of color bring joy into the lives of the uptight and white, but "The Visitor" maintains a balance by keeping conscious of the complexity of its relationships. Tarek befriends Walter, teaching him to drum and taking him to shows, because he’s a genial guy, but also because he knows it’s in his best interests to do so. Zainab is more uncomfortable depending on the kindness of a stranger and more cautious in general due to the fact that neither she nor Tarek is in the country legally. Then Tarek is nabbed in the subway for a misunderstanding and ends up in a holding facility for illegals, and Walter gets pulled into the labyrinthine bureaucracy of immigration, deportation and post-9/11 security, and proves himself a true and stalwart friend.

Sleiman, Gurira and, eventually, Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother are all very good, but "The Visitor" belongs to Jenkins, a loomingly awkward figure in whose eyes awareness of the world slowly reawakens. It’s a performance of such delicacy it manages to counterbalance the film’s tendency to linger on shots of the Statue of Liberty and the American flag, as well as some dialogue about home and belonging and how people deserve to be treated that would test the patience of the most sympathetic to McCarthy’s point of view.

"The Visitor" will be released by Overture Films on April 11.

+ "The Visitor" (Sundance)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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