This is a tender film that deals with personal crises being experienced by strangers whose lives accidentally connect and become intertwined in a most compassionate way.
In a riveting, poignant performance, Richard Jenkins, who played the father in Six Feet Under, portrays Walter Vale, an economics professor in a Connecticut college. Since the death of his wife, his life has turned into one of quiet desperation. He has lost interest in teaching and writing and tries to fill the void with meaningless piano lessons which he hopes will keep him connected to his late wife who was a pianist. His unbridled boredom is beautifully telegraphed in a quiet moment when instead of preparing a new syllabus for his current class, he uses white out to update the year. This is the amount of effort he wishes to exert.
Although Vale lives and works in Connecticut, he maintains an apartment in New York which he has not used in months. The intersection of lives begins when Vale is sent to New York by his college to present a paper which he insists he did not co-write.
When Vale arrives at his apartment, he is stunned to find a beautiful young black woman taking a bath. It turns out that Zainab (Danai Gurira) and her Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) were victims of a real estate scam and agree to pack up their belongings and leave quickly to avoid any trouble.
Vale is touched by these two young people and invites them to stay with him until they get settled elsewhere. The relationship between Tarek and Vale begins to blossom and for the first time in years, Vale is actually experiencing moments of happiness. Tarek, a talented musician, begins teaching Vale how to play the African drum which Vale studies with much enthusiasm. A whole new world opens up for him as he begins to participate in drumming circles around the city.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Tarek is arrested in a New York subway station and is taken to a drab detention center to await deportation. He is, as it turns out, in the country illegally.
Tarak’s beautiful mother Mouna, played with deep sensitivity by Hiam Abbass, flies in from Michigan to search for her son and meets Vale who, due to this crisis, has gotten back in touch with his lost emotions, regains his determination, and is driven to help Tarak. He extends his kindness to Mouna and a sweet bond begins to form.
Jenkins’ Vale moves slowly and is expressionless most of the time. Smiling does not come easily for him. But, despite the slowness, and often emotionless state of his character, the film moves at a wonderful clip and does not fall into the pacing trap of all the characters picking up the same vocal and physical rhythms.
Meticulously written and directed by Tom McCarthy, whose first project was The Station Agent, this is a film with characters that we care about. It illustrates how strangers can impact on each other’s lives and how through much sadness, a ray of joy can shine through. It is also a brutal look at how summary deportation reeks havoc on the lives of loved ones.
Look for Richard Jenkins, Haaz Steiman, and Hiam Abbam at Oscar time.