When Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a tired and worn-out college economics teacher, is conscripted to go to New York City to present a paper he coauthored, but was barely involved in, he has no idea how the event will change the way he looks at life and the people around him.
It begins the moment he opens the door to his presumably vacant apartment in the Big Apple, which he hasn't occupied for some time. In the bathtub is a woman lounging in bubbles, and a moment later a man has him pressed up against a wall while verbally and physically threatening him.
The confrontation soon dissipates as Terek (Haaz Sleiman) discovers the identity of the supposed intruder, and realizes the person he thought was his landlord is a fraud. Quickly packing their belongings, he and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) politely leave. But Walter, recognizing these obvious immigrants have nowhere else to go, suddenly has a change of heart. What starts as an offer to let them stay for a couple of days until they can make other arrangements develops into much more than a cohabitation agreement with the mixed ethnic Muslim couple.
Walter, who has long been discouraged by his inability to learn how to play the piano, discovers an unexpected love for African drums as he listen's to young Terek's talented fingers tapping the instruments. The activity opens a dialogue between the outgoing Syrian musician and the reclusive American educator that soon has them in Central Park drumming with other members of NYC's ethnic community. Age, culture and individual temperaments quickly disappear as Walter becomes more intrigued and invigorated by Terek's interests and Zainab's Senegalese background.
All is good until the day Terek is stopped in the subway by police who question his immigration documentation. Suddenly, the young percussionist is placed in jail and Walter becomes his only connection with the outside world (because a visit from Zainab would risk revealing her illegal status). When Terek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) unexpectedly arrives after failing to make contact her son, the man who was once able to ignore the plight of others, feels himself being pulled further into the lives of these threes strangers. His indifference is now replaced by an urgent desire to try and help.
Slow in its pacing, yet determined to keep you interested, The Visitor provides a protagonist that undergoes positive personal change, as well as offering a glimpse into the lives and potential consequences of those who come desperately hoping for a better life in America.
Content concerns for parents in this fine drama are few -- the worst being two partial utterances of the sexual expletive, along with a few other moderate profanities heard throughout the movie. In addition, there is the scuffle that occurs when Terek thinks Walter has broken into their apartment and roughly questions if he has touched Zainab, plus the assumption the couple is living together (although no sexual activity between them is ever shown).
Obviously this story is unlikely to appeal to young children and even getting teens to sit down and view it may be a chore. If you are successful however, the outcome will lead to some rewarding discussions about opening our lives to help others, understanding the plights that drive people to seek a better life, and appreciating the opportunities found in the land of the free.