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 â€” 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)