Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2009
It’s always nice to see an accomplished character actor step up to a lead role, and Richard Jenkins does so with wit and pathos in this heartfelt, fresh perspective on the subject of illegal immigrants in the US. Walter is a sad and dispirited widower, a college professor in Connecticut who finds a pair of squatters in his unused NYC apartment: the gregarious Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria, and his more guarded Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). After some initial awkwardness, he invites them to stay until they can find another place, and the three eventually bond. Tarek teaches Walter to play African drums (which he’s not bad at), Zainab warms up, and Walter begins an emotional thaw. The film takes a political turn when Tarek is arrested on a minor charge and threatened with deportation, and Walter finds how powerless he is in the face of The System. In the course of his quest, he meets and develops an unconsummated romantic relationship with Tarek’s mother, brilliantly played by Hiam Abbass. Suitably ambiguous ending. Amid all the noise and SFX in theaters nowadays, writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) understands well the power of understatement.