Tom McCarthy's surprise indie hit "The Station Agent" was something of a minor miracle. A touching, big-hearted character study propelled by three vibrant performances, "The Station Agent" distinguished itself with its sensitivity and grace, qualities sorely lacking in an independent film culture that too often prizes the clever, the glib, the cute, and the smug. With his sophomore effort as a writer-director, "The Visitor," McCarthy once again proves himself to be refreshingly out-of-step with the indie mainstream, taking an improbable set-up and patiently observing as his damaged but likeable characters work their way through it. Despite its contrivances, the film is a work of quiet, restrained empathy.
As he did in "The Station Agent," McCarthy structures "The Visitor" around an unlikely friendship: here, between a middle-aged college professor and a Syrian immigrant. Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an apathetic widower with a minor drinking problem (he eats his morning cereal with a glass of red wine), who fills his empty days with futile piano lessons (he's dreadful) and a small bit of teaching (at which he seems to be equally dreadful). Walter takes an unwanted break from this mundanity to deliver a paper at a conference at NYU, only to discover that someone has illegally sublet his lovely Manhattan apartment to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Esi (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a young immigrant couple.
Like any rational person in this (unlikely) situation, Walter turns them out, but then, realizing that they have nowhere else to go, he reconsiders and agrees to let them stay. Before long, Tarek begins giving Walter drum lessons, and the two strike a rapport.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat preposterous premise -- how long has Walter left this beautiful, spacious New York apartment unattended, and how has it remained in such immaculate condition without a caretaker? What person in his right mind would share said apartment with two perfect strangers, regardless of the circumstances? -- and to make Walter's decision-making at all comprehensible, McCarthy must, of necessity, paint Tarek and Esi in broad, sympathetic strokes. Tarek, especially, radiates an uncomplicated goodness that rings false. But the film more than justifies these small leaps of faith.
"The Visitor" quickly moves past its dubious central conceit to become, most unexpectedly, a very good social problem picture, the sort of movie that examines a major political issue with straightforward compassion. In slow takes, McCarthy gives his actors the latitude they need to give fully realized performances, and they reward him by conveying an authenticity and emotional directness that compensates for the shortcomings of the screenwriting.
McCarthy is the sort of filmmaker who might be chastised for his earnestness or his heart-on-his-sleeve emotion, but he has a knack for knowing just where and how to keep pushing and when to hold back. In one of "The Visitor"'s most disarming scenes, Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass, excellent here) makes an ineffectual appeal to her son's lawyer, who is too busy to devote his full attention to her. The scene seems obvious and hamfisted -- overworked lawyer, Middle Eastern immigrant, etc. -- but just when it's about to completely derail, McCarthy subverts our expectations with a fleeting moment of sympathy.
McCarthy brings an affecting and effective genuineness to his film, which, like "The Station Agent," is a story about the ties that sometimes bind lost souls and marginalized others. In his own modest way, he has emerged as a vital humanist voice in an independent cinema that, frankly, needs a few more filmmakers as unafraid of a little sentimentality.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and director of education at the Museum of the Moving Image.]