This is a must-see indie film about NYC, immigrants, and (above all) the importance of connection. It’s a small budget film that packs a big emotional punch! His role as Walter Vale, a lonely/ widowed academic, earned veteran character actor Richard Jenkins a Best Actor Oscar nomination at age 62.
The Visitor was written/directed by another character actor, Tom McCarthy.
Walter (Richard Jenkins) travels from his suburban home in Connecticut to his NYC apartment to attend a seminar (about global development issues) at NYU. The mild-mannered professor is shocked to discover that his apartment is already occupied by a young couple in their 20s- a Syrian drummer, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), who makes/sells jewelry. These young people(both Muslim, BTW) are very embarrassed by the situation, but they have nowhere else to go. Walter gives them permission to stay for as long as they need. He is intrigued by Tarek and Zainab, two people a guy like him doesn’t meet every day.
Walter is also intrigued by the drum that Tarek, a joyous/big-hearted guy, plays in Central Park and little clubs around the city. Tarek encourages the hesitant Walter (a classical music fan) to try the drum as well. Soon, they are good friends, much to the chagrin of Zainab. She often has a serious expression on her face, and we sense that she is nervous about something. On the street, Zainab is wary of police. One night, she admits to Walter that she and Tarek overstayed their visas (so are now of illegal status).
One day, while getting on the subway, Tarek is stopped by two plainclothes NYPD officers. “He did nothing wrong!” Walter exclaims with bewilderment. Walter can’t believe his eyes when his new friend is quickly taken into police custody, and then to a detention center in Long Island City, Queens. (Well, he is a Muslim man living in the U.S. post-9/11.) Even more shocking is the fact that over 300 people are in that center, including children!
Walter consoles Zainab by explaining that he’s arranged for an immigration attorney to handle Tarek’s case. “He can’t stay in that place!” Zainab exclaims, feeling that being in such an environment will crush Tarek’s spirit. Zainab can’t bring herself to visit the detention center, but Walter goes each day to check on Tarek. Zainab is grateful for Walter’s help, yet deeply saddened by the turn of events. Zainab leaves Walter’s apartment to stay with a cousin.
Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbas), arrives from Michigan when she doesn’t hear news from her son. She’s surprised to learn that Tarek shared a place with Walter. Sensing Mouna’s sadness and worry, he insists that she stay in the apartment, too. “You can use Tarek’s room,” Walter says. He tries to make her feel comfortable during a very difficult time. They share a strong connection as well, though it doesn’t turn romantic.
Will Walter’s kindly efforts help Tarek stay in the US? How will Zainab, Mouna, and Walter come to terms with the final decision? Watch the film to find out!