Before it ends, director Tom McCarthy's sophomore film The Visitor ends up going to some fairly ambitious places, and for the most part it does right by its ambition; but it's always at its best in the very small moments where it's not concerned with anything larger than the thoughts and behaviors of people. It is the simplest kind of great movie, the kind that trains the camera on an actor's face and allows the rest to follow naturally.

It helps that the primary face we see in the film is such a particularly expressive one; it belongs to Richard Jenkins, an exceedingly well-travelled character actor (he's worked in low-brow comedies and arthouse satires, action pictures and grim dramas; he's worked twice with the Farrelly brothers, and this year he'll be in his third film for the Coen brothers). His work is in the finest tradition of character acting, always perfectly attuned to the needs of the scene and film, but never such that he dominates beyond our simple feeling that he's definitely a That Guy. The Visitor is the 60-year-old's first leading role, and the expanded scope suits him very well indeed. I do not mean for it to sound like a backhanded criticism of the movie if I say that it works foremost as the experience of watching Jenkins inhabit his role; I mean only to suggest how extremely moving Jenkins is in that role.

He plays Walter Vale, an professor of economics in Connecticut who is forced to present a paper on a subject he doesn't really care about at a conference in New York he doesn't really want to attend after his co-author (who wrote the whole thing and asked for him to co-sign it, for the sake of his authority, we're to assume) comes down pregnant. There is no joy in Walter's life and there clearly hasn't been ever since his wife, a concert pianist, passed away some years ago. Upon arriving at the apartment he keeps in the city, he finds it inhabited by Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), an immigrant from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. Rather than throw them out or call the police, Walter invites them to stay with him for the time being.

If you think this starts to have the outline of the traditional "white guy is taught to love life again by the cheerful brown people" story, you get a gold star - Tarek plays the drum both professionally and as a hobby, and he teaches it to Walter, who's been struggling futilely with piano lessons as a means to keep music in his life. Somehow, it doesn't play like most films on that model: it's not cloying and not crypto-racist. In fact the interplay of personalities on display doesn't really feel like a race movie at all. Credit is due in equal parts I suppose to McCarthy's script, which does not stress the fact that Walter is really white and his new friends aren't, and to the actors, who each and every one play their characters as rounded human beings invested in their respective cultures without being defined by them.

More importantly, though, is that the film takes great pains to show that Tarek doesn't inspire Walter because he's a generic Magical Arab; he does it because they become friends, and it's very clear without the film having to tell us so that Tarek is the first friend Walter has had in a great many years. This is the unspoken reason behind virtually all of the older man's actions in the film: for the first time since his wife died, Walter has found himself among people whom he genuinely likes to spend time with.

McCarthy and Jenkins's commitment to this idea helps The Visitor navigate what could have been a disastrous swerve in the plot: Tarek is arrested for an impossibly minor infraction and found out to be in the country illegally. Having a job waiting for him that he hates and plenty of money saved up from years of never doing anything, Walter throws himself at the system, hiring a lawyer and doing whatever he possibly can to save Tarek from deportation. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a filmmaker electing to take a good long look at the arcana of the US immigration policy, but it's certainly a very different place to end up than the film began, and it takes hardly any imagination to see how the film could have mucked it up badly. Fortunately, by the time the plot shifts, there's already a firm anchor to keep our attention and so what might have been awkward contrivance goes by mostly unnoticed.

It helps too that McCarthy isn't trying to score points for or against the US government. Insofar as the immigration plotline has a political argument, that argument is something like, "there's a lot of humiliating bureaucracy here, and whether these people ought to be in this country or not, they're still human beings and should be treated as such." The film is unmistakably sympathetic towards Tarek's case, and I have little doubt that the writer-director is opposed to the draconian immigration code as it currently stands, but that's not his rhetorical intent here: here he just wants to remind us that living humans are being crushed by this system. Since The Visitor has so far only been about human beings, that approach makes the political side of the film fit much more smoothly into the whole.

Mostly, I would never think to complain about this half of the plot because it's what enables the film to introduce Tarek's mother Mouna, played by the exceptional Israeli actress Hiam Abbass. Watching her and Jenkins onscreen together has to count as one of the chief joys of the first third of Movie Year 2008; their subtle flirtation borne more out of mutual loneliness than mutual attraction is heartbreaking, and Abbass negotiates the typical Oscar-baity "I shall fight for my son!" moments with none of the hammy bombast that could have crippled her character.

To begin and end with the acting; does this mean that there's nothing else worth mentioning about The Visitor? Well, it's awfully hard to notice anything else because it's all so very subtle; I think I've sort of implied that the script is strong and the directing is strong also, but in a very hands-off, anti-stylish way. We are supposed to notice the characters, and that means no fancy editing or terribly imaginative set-design (although frankly, the sets that we see are terrifically evocative of the people living in them). There are are many close-up shots, far more than usual for an American film, and this certainly counts as an important stylistic choice, but one that manages to hide itself behind the subject matter of the shots. We're too busy watching the lines of faces to really think about how those faces got up on the screen. It's a formally conservative film that puts its faith in the exquisite performance of well-drawn characters to carry all of its points. This faith, I am happy to say, is rewarded tenfold.