Actor and filmmaker Tom McCarthy's second feature proves that his remarkable debut was no fluke: Like THE STATION AGENT (2003), it's a beautifully acted drama about unlikely friendships taking root under unusual circumstances.
Widowed economics professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) began withdrawing from the world when he lost his wife, a classical pianist. He teaches by rote, barely interacts with his students and isn't writing his new book; pretty much the only thing he is doing is studying piano, joylessly and in spite of his evident lack of aptitude. Forced to attend a conference in New York and present the paper he ostensibly cowrote with a promising younger colleague, he gloomily returns to the modest Manhattan co-op he's barely visited since his wife's death. To his shock, there's a young couple living in his apartment: A real-estate scam artist "rented" it to Lebanese-Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). They hastily pack their few belongings, but when it becomes clear that they have nowhere to go, Walter's atrophied sense of common decency forces him to let them stay until they've made arrangements. And against his will, Walter warms to the couple -- Zainab maintains a politely wary distance, but outgoing Tarek is hard to resist; Walter even accepts his offer of drumming lessons. Both are undocumented and struggling to build a life far from their troubled homelands, eking out a living -- he plays the djembe with jazz bands, she sells custom-made jewelry at a Soho flea market -- while trying to stay off the government radar. But when Tarek is arrested -- erroneously -- for fare beating, his illegal status comes to light and he's detained pending deportation. Zainab can't get involved without risking deportation herself, so Walter steps in and gets a rude introduction to the Kafka-esque ways of post 9/11 Citizenship and Immigration Services. And then Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), turns up, desperate to help her son and puzzled by this near-stranger who suddenly occupies such a significant place in his life.
While THE STATION AGENT took place in a self-contained world, McCarthy's follow-up is equally concerned with private lives and the larger cultural factors that shape them. It's a delicate balancing act, and McCarthy pulls it off. The issues don't overwhelm the relationships, and Zainab, Tarek and Mouna are never reduced to vehicles for the redemption of a privileged white man. McCarthy's flawless casting may be the film's greatest strength: Veteran character actor Jenkins and his costars vanish into their characters -- their performances are so subtle and unforced that they don't feel like performances at all. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh