This is a quiet, intensely felt and well observed film about how chance and small choices lead to life changes, happy and sad. It's about very different people being thrown together. It's about a husk of a man being drawn back into life.
Oh, and it has a political element about immigration. If you think that may bother you, please read on--you have no real cause for worry. No political view was harmed in the making of this movie.
Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a 62-year-old economics professor who is drained of life. He takes piano lessons, perhaps in a vain effort to connect somehow with his deceased pianist wife, but he has no great talent and gets no joy from it; he teaches a class, but no one enjoys that; he doesn't really work on his book.
A chance occurrence takes Walter from his home in Connecticut to his apartment in New York City where, in an unexpectedly generous moment (which makes sense as presented), he gives place to two young immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a man from Syria who makes his living playing the djembe (an African drum), and girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), a jewelry maker from Senegal. Walter is drawn in by Tarek's drum and sunny open-heartedness, finding in the more elemental spirit of the drum what he lacked with the piano. As Tarek teaches him to play, the juices of life begin to flow again.
Another chance occurrence lands Tarek in a detention center for undocumented immigrants. From this point, about halfway into the film, the treatment of illegal immigrants becomes a theme. This brings Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) into the picture, whose presence furthers Walter's revival.
It may seem strange to say, but the political theme about the treatment of illegal immigrants, especially those from the Muslim world post September 11th, is one-sided but not unfair. That is, because of the point of view of the movie, Walter's point of view, we only see a small part of the complex issues relating to immigration. What we do see is presented accurately, without blaming anyone; there are no villains; no political stance or attitude is made to look bad; no hint of a political program is suggested as to how to deal with illegal immigrants. This country, and New York City in particular, is presented as a vibrant, desirable place. The only political act is to give the immigrant a sympathetic human face, and to show how implacable and dehumanized the immigration system can be.
The role of Walter was written for Jenkins, who was nominated for an Oscar for it--quite an accomplishment for a small, non-Hollywood film. He starts off cold and doing some unsympathetic things, yet he manages to capture our sympathy. I was especially impressed by Sleiman's perfectly natural and irresistible Tarek. He makes not only his own role believable, but everyone else's--it's easy to see why others would interact with him as they do. And I was struck by the understated beauty and power of Abbass, as Tarek's mother. It's a pleasure just to see her on screen. The other main role, Gurira's Zainab, is also drawn most effectively.
Writer/director Tom McCarthy, who is an actor himself, called on a lot of fine actors to play the small roles, so every character is interesting and engaging.
The audio commentary with McCarthy and Jenkins focuses mostly on how the film was made, with only the occasional remark about the meaning. I found it interesting, but I learned more about the ideas behind and in the film in some of the many interviews with McCarthy and Jenkins I found online. The Inside Look featurette is short and slight; the deleted scenes are also brief, but add a bit. The featurette on playing the djembe includes interviews with the man who taught Sleiman, Jenkins and, before that, McCarthy himself to play, along with input from the actors.
One point that came up in many interviews I read, but is only barely touched on in the audio commentary, is the meaning of the title. So as not to spoil anything I'll just suggest that it has many meanings through the film, so don't be stingy in applying it wherever it seems to fit.
This film is a treat for those who like character studies, especially ones that focus on the struggles, triumphs and losses of ordinary, basically good people. It won't give anything away to say that the ending is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Like the best movies of its kind, it made me feel more deeply who I am and what it is to be human.