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The Visitor

One middle-aged man's unlikely awakening forms the heart of this small gem

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Describing writer-director Tom McCarthy's 2003 quirky indie feature The Station Agent made it sound insufferably precious: A dwarf living in an abandoned train station befriends a mouthy hot-dog vendor and a depressed divorcée. In fact, it was a charming oddball character study that earned its emotions honestly. Similarly, McCarthy's latest dramedy sounds trite, but experiencing this small gem isn't. A buttoned-up economics professor named Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, wonderfully on point), in Manhattan for a conference, finds an illegal immigrant couple squatting in his Upper West Side pied-à-terre. On impulse, he befriends them, particularly Tariq, a Syrian musician who eventually helps free Walter's dormant soul through drumming. In post-9/11 New York, the ebullient Tariq (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend are "visitors," long past their tourist visas. But in McCarthy's gentle, well-acted film, the real visitor is Walter who, through the intercession of strangers, realizes he's been absent from both his own life and from the chaotic, wonderful, terrible world of humanity beyond his slot of privilege. Certainly, The Visitor is bittersweet: These days, any story about illegal Muslims will be, and McCarthy rebukes the unilateral hardness that our current culture of fear now generates. But this is not a screed, and there are many affirming moments, including -- as cheesy as it sounds -- watching a middle-aged white man beat out African rhythms on a drum. Starts Fri., April 25. Manor (AH) [capsule review]

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