Although not parting from a radically original premise, The Visitor is movie with plenty of heart put into it and with an unavoidable sincerity and good will that make it feel outstanding. Filmmaking-wise, it brings nothing new to the table. Its success relies purely on its ability to connect with us and the way it asks us to empathize with it.
Richard Jenkins plays an emotinally numb college professor who leads a boring, uninspired, and dissatisfying life in Connecticut. He once had a beautiful pianist wife, but she passed away. His son lives in London. And so life goes... Until he is forced to give a conference in New York about a paper on economics he didn't even write. He arrives at his house in NYC and discovers two illegal immigrants living inside it: Tarek, from Syria, and Zainab, from Senegal. He doesn't want to kick them out just like that so he lets them stay until they find a new place... and he befriends them. The conference is over and he still doesn't want to return to Connecticut. And when Tarek is inexplicably arrested and considered for deportation, he becomes deeply involved in solving the problem. He who never cared for anything or anyone before.
Oh, and Walter, the professor, is a very big music fan, but terribly self-conscious about his ability to play it or even follow rhythm. Tarek, who plays drums, begins to teach him, and this is one of the most endearing things about the film...
Richard Jenkins gives a very good performance. His character is quiet and inexpressive, allthemore reason to admire the way he communicates comfort, discomfort, happiness, and sadness. Once, when his piano teacher tells him he has no talent, his face shows such heartbreaking defeat, as if taking a blow... a fantastic three seconds, of which I was reminded when the tables turned. Jenkins has total control of the character. His transgressions throughout the film shine through the stone exterior. His awkwardness, concealing a need to become someone else, someone more similar to his real self. Just a great performance. Hiam Abbass (Tarek's mother), Danai Gurira and Haaz Sleiman constitute, let's say, what animates the heart of the film, which would be Jenkins. They are instantly unforgettable. Sleiman is very charismatic. I should expect to see him in more films!
In spite of the tragic scenarios, nothing is completely tragic. The characters develop bonds of unconditional friendship and tolerate their individual Universes -never forgetting their differences, but not transforming them into obstacles-. I suppose they meet in a common ground of humanity, since, after all, they all undergo processes of loss and love, and find solace there, and room to grow. With good dialog and such enthusiastic acting, it all happens naturally.
To all those skeptical of immigrant-themed films, it's worth mentioning that this film is not racist in any way, neither towards the immigrants by stereotyping them, nor towards the American characters by stereotyping or villifying them. I think the script is perfectly balanced.
Of course The Visitor leaves a very secular and humane message of acceptance and empathy between nationalities and characters. But what I loved the most about it was what transcends that cultural part of the 'lesson' and happens in a merely human dimension: how this one person, Tarek, could goodheartedly teach Walter to play the drums, and how Walter, with his help, could overcome his own self-conciousness and his feelings of inadequacy to do what he darn well wanted to: play music and follow rhythm and let loose. If helping another person become a better, happier version of himself, to help him perfect himself, like it happens here, is not a perfect idea of friendship, then what is?
So four stars for lovely performances and for being just plain right in many ways.