The Visitor should have been a series of cliches. It's a message movie, a cross-cultural connections movie, and an old-guy-learns-to-live movie. By not pushing any of those too hard, it succeeds.
Richard Jenkins, a character actor best known as the dead dad on Six Feet Under, plays Professor Walter Vale, a man who sleepwalks through life. Changing the year on his course syllabus is the most thought he puts into his teaching. He tries to learn piano to remember his dead wife. But on a trip to New York, he finds his apartment has been rented out to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a couple of illegal immigrants. After letting them stay, he befriends Tarek and learns to play the drums. And when Tarek gets arrested as an illegal immigrant, Walter feels compelled to help, especially as he connects with Tarek's mom, Mouna (Hiam Abbass).
Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (who also made the very enjoyable indie The Station Agent) has a lot to say about the treatment of immigrants in the United States today. But that thankfully takes a backseat to the characters. The message is there in service to the story and only once feels remotely didactic. Even then, it is more of a character moment than a lesson. By avoiding didacticism, the movie's point is far more effective.
McCarthy is more guilty of the cross-cultural cliche, but his look at the immigrant community in New York makes up for it. The street fair where Zainab sells her jewelry, filled with people from all over the world, is a part of New York less often seen on film. But Tarek is perhaps too good of a person to be wholly believable. Warm and friendly to Walter and the polar opposite of a terrorist, he makes a convenient sacrificial lamb for the film's message on immigration. But perhaps thanks to the actor, the character still feels real.
The heart of the movie though lies with Jenkins' central performance. Walter is hardly the grumpy grandfather from Heidi. He is after all nice enough to let Tarek and Zainab stay. He is just understandably lonely and bored with life. As Walter comes to care about first Tarek and then Mouna, Jenkins shows in the smallest of ways how drastically Walter's life has changed. He keeps the movie centered on the emotional, so that it never feels like a political film. Like Walter, The Visitor is small and low-key but packs a lot of heart. It was easy to miss it in theaters, but make sure to catch it on DVD.