Thursday, June 19, 2008

'The Visitor' is a warm, funny and important human drama

“The Visitor” may sound like the title for the latest big-budget alien-invasion film or psychological thriller, but it is neither of those things. Instead it is a powerful human drama that, in its own small way, is an important film.

The film focuses on Walter (Richard Jenkins), a Connecticut college professor who discovers that two immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), are living in a New York apartment he owns, but hasn’t visited in years. Instead of kicking them out, he invites them to stay, and a friendship develops.

Tarek is from Syria and Zainab from Senegal and both are Muslim, but these characters' ethnicities or religious beliefs do not rigidly define them. They are not presented as racial stereotypes.

Walter becomes intrigued by Tarek’s drum playing, and Tarek begins offering lessons. They develop a quick bond, and Walter, a widow who disconnected from the world, starts to live again.

It turns out that Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants, and when Tarek is arrested for a nothing offense that he didn’t even commit,he is thrown into detention. Walter tries to help legalize Tarek but finds it isn’t that easy in a post 9/11 world.

The film isn’t a heavy-handed social lesson. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy is shrewder than that. There are scenes of anger and frustration at the system, but at the core the film is told on a personal level and doesn’t get involved with murky politics. The film is all the stronger for keeping its story on people and never succumbing to the urge to have a soapbox speech.

McCarthy’s previous film was the equally wonderful “Station Agent,” another story about a private man whose life is rejuvenated by making unlikely friends. The basic template behind both films is hardly new, but McCarthy has a way of presenting stories of broken or lost souls that seem fresh.

The key is that McCarthy doesn’t become stuck in plot. Too often characters get undermined when they are forced through the illogical hoops of screenwriting 101. McCarthy’s characters behave like real people, not movie people. His characters are warm, intelligent and dimensional.

Jenkins, a character actor, who has been popping up in small film and TV roles for over 20 years, will be a familiar face to audiences, but it isn’t likely they’ll know from where. As Walter, he is quiet and reserved, and walking through life on autopilot. Jenkins hints at the underlining pain to the character and paints Walter’s reawakening to humanity in small gestures instead of broad strokes. There is a joy in the drum scenes that is sure to make audiences’ smile broadly.

Jenkins is surrounded by uniformly strong performances. Sleiman as Tarek is instantly likable, and it is plain to see why just about anyone would be eager to befriend him. His relaxed screen presence makes it easy to care about his plight.

Hiam Abbass plays Tarek’s mother, who develops a parallel friendship with Walter as they both try to find a way to free Tarek from detention. There is unforced chemistry between Jenkins and Abbass that touches on romance, but never quite gives over to it.

But the film isn’t a non-stop love fest between different races. Zainab is uncertain of Walter and his intentions. It isn’t racism, but a protective guard — and Gurira plays this delicately. There is a truth to this character. Many people innately don’t trust what they don’t know and prefer to stay with their own people than to risk mixing with others. McCarthy was wise to keep this in as it shows an understanding of people and adds depth to his story.

“The Visitor” isn’t a hard film to watch, but its presentation of characters as individuals and not clichés, no matter what their ethnic background, is something rare in films. The film puts a face on the illegal immigration issue and shows characters from the Middle East who are something more than terrorists. Some may be quick to brand the film as left-wing propaganda, but this is not a liberal or conservative film, it is a human film.

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