NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Courtney who adds... "This film is a touching story about immigration, cross-cultural friendships, and the city of New York. Rather than cram an interpretation down the viewer's throat via voice over or gratuitous dialog, the film allows the images to speak for themselves."
The film begins with a scene in Professor Walter Vale in his house in Connecticut. He is waiting for someone. We get the immediate impression that he is a reserved and socially awkward man. The doorbell rings and Walter opens the door to find an older schoolmarm- like woman standing there. She introduces herself as Barbara Watson and Walter invites her in. He asks to take her coat and offers her something to drink, and she refuses on both counts. We soon learn that she is here to help him learn to play the piano. Walter is a widower and his wife was a classical pianist, but Walter himself is a beginner without much motivation or talent. Ms. Watson is a stern teacher and the lesson doesn’t go very well. At the end of the hour, Walter tells her that she doesn’t need to come back. Ms. Watson asks how many teachers he has had before and Walter replies that he’s had four. Ms. Watson then offers to buy his piano.
The next few scenes are of Walter teaching at Connecticut University. A student comes to see him during his office hours. The student wants to hand in a paper late, and when Walter asks him why it is late, the student replies that he had “personal issues” to deal with. Walter flatly refuses to accept the paper. On his way out of the office, the student reminds Walter that he has yet to give the class the course syllabus and Walter replies “I know.” We then see Walter eating by himself in the cafeteria. He is then visited by another academic, possibly his Department head, Charles. Charles tells Walter that the professor with whom Walter co-authored a paper has been bedridden due to a complicated pregnancy and can’t present their work at a conference in New York. Charles tells Walter that as co-author, he has to go to New York instead so that his colleague can stay on track for tenure. Walter refuses to go, but Charles gives him no choice. Walter confesses that he actually didn’t write any of the paper that he put his name on it only because his colleague asked him to, and therefore can’t present it at the conference. Charles is upset, and at this point essentially forces Walter to go. We then see Walter driving to New York.
When Walter arrives, he enters his apartment that he hasn’t been to in a very long time and it is implied that this is due to his wife’s death. As soon as Walter walks in, he sees signs that the apartment has been inhabited during his absence flowers, items that aren’t his. He begins to walk through the apartment, calling out. He hears a noise in the bathroom and opens the door to find Zainab in the bathtub. Zainab is a Senegalese Muslim woman and begins screaming in French at Walter. Walter tries to explain that he is the owner of the apartment. Suddenly, Tarek, Zainab’s boyfriend from Syria, arrives and pins Walter against the wall, asking if he touched Zainab. Walter again explains that he is the owner of the apartment and Tarek replies that this is impossible because his friend Ivan rented him this place. Walter says that he doesn’t know Ivan and shows Tarek his keys. Tarek lets Walter go, apologies and they begin to pack their things. Walter sits on the couch and watches them struggle to get their things outside. Walter looks up and notices that they forgot a picture on the windowsill and takes it down to them. It is night, and Walter knows that they have nowhere to go. He gives them their picture back and invites them to stay with him. Everyone returns to the apartment.
The next morning, there are some awkward moments between Walter and Zainab before Walter goes to his conference on globalization. During a break, Walter sees some musicians in Central Park playing plastic buckets and he clearly enjoys their sound. When he gets back to the apartment, he finds Tarek playing his djembe, or hand drum, without pants on. Tarek apologizes and says that he has practiced that way since he was a child. Walter asks him to keep playing and Tarek decides to start teaching Walter how to play. Walter has trouble at first, but soon feels the rhythm and plays all afternoon. Zainab returns home and finds him sweaty over his drum. Zainab makes everyone dinner and afterwards, she and Tarek get ready to go to one of his gigs. Tarek invites Walter, who initially says no to Zainab’s relief, but soon changes his mind and the three head out to a nice bar. Tarek plays his drum in a small jazz band, and Walter really loves the show. These scenes are mixed with scenes of Walter at his conference and in Central Park listening to the musicians playing the plastic buckets.
One afternoon, as Walter is leaving his conference, Tarek meets him with their drums. He and Walter find Zainab in the market where she sells her handmade jewelry. A woman buys one of her bracelets and asks Zainab where she is from. When Zainab explains that she is from Senegal, the woman tells her that she was just in Capetown and it was so beautiful there. After the woman leaves, Zainab explains to her neighbor that Capetown is about 8,000 kilometers from her country. Her neighbor replies that he once told a man he was from Israel and the customer asked him if he’d ever been to the Holy Land. They have a good laugh about it. When Zainab sees Walter and Tarek, she reminds them that they have to come back and get her soon because she needs them to help her with an important errand. Tarek promises to come back and they head out to Central Park to play in a drum circle. While on the way, Tarek comments that he’d like to play in the subway some day because it is good money. At the park, Tarek joins the circle first but Walter hangs back soon, he joins in as well and we see everyone from different countries playing together. Walter and Tarek have formed a nice friendship. Tarek tells Walter that his father was a journalist in Syria and Walter talks about his three books.
When the drum circle ends, Tarek realizes that they will be late meeting Zainab and they go to the subway. Walter has no token, but Tarek uses his pass to pay for both of them. Walter goes through the turnstile first and Tarek hands him one drum. When Tarek tries to go through with the other drum, he gets stuck and hands Walter the second drum while he tries to get himself out of the turnstile. Tarek is suddenly approached by two cops who accuse him of jumping the turnstile. Walter tries to defend him, and Tarek shows his pass, but in an obvious act of racial profiling, Tarek is arrested. He tells Walter to take the drums and to not let Zainab go to the police station. Walter follows Tarek and makes a statement in his defense, assuming that he will be released that evening. Walter goes back to the apartment and explains what happened to Zainab. Zainab get very upset and confesses to Walter that she and Tarek are illegal and they soon find out that Tarek has been turned over to immigration for deportation. Tarek is detained in a center in Queens and Walter immediately hires an immigration lawyer to get Tarek out. Despite the fact that the conference is over, Walter does not return to Connecticut.
Walter visits Tarek daily at the center, which doesn’t look like a prison. It is in a part of town without much life and the building looks like a big concrete block without windows. During his first visit, Walter stands in line behind someone who is looking for a relative. The man learns that “the detainee has been transferred” but isn’t told where. The official tells the man that if he has questions, there is a number to call on the wall over by the payphones. Tarek is initially in high spirits, but he hates the center. There is no privacy and the lights are on all the time. Walter shows him a letter from Zainab, who has left the apartment to go live with a cousin nearby, and then asks Tarek a couple of questions about his immigration status. Tarek says that he was denied asylum Tarek’s father had been imprisoned in Syria for seven years because of his writing only to die upon release due to an illness but that he believes that he followed all the instructions he received from the US government. Visiting hours are cut short for a head count and Walter leaves.
After a few visits to Tarek, who is deteriorating in detention, Walter receives a call from Charles to return to the University. As he is getting ready to leave, someone knocks on his door. A beautiful woman asks for Tarek, and Walter realizes that this is Tarek’s mother who was living in Michigan. She has come looking for her son because he hasn’t called her in five days and he won’t pick up his cell. Walter invites her in and explains the situation to her. She wants to see where he is detained, so Walter takes her. Walter brings Tarek a letter from his mother, who waits outside. Tarek is upset that she is here and makes Walter promise to get her to leave immediately. After his meeting with Tarek, Walter and Mouna (Tarek’s mother) visit the lawyer. The lawyer is clearly overworked and he asks Mouna point-blank if she ever received a deportation letter from the government. Mouna says that it never arrived and the lawyer says that as long as the letter never arrived, he can help. If they actually got a letter and ignored it, there is nothing he can do. The lawyer confesses that his uncle was deported after raising a family for over twenty years in the US and he will do whatever he can to help.
Walter takes Mouna to meet Zainab at the market. At first, Mouna is surprised by how “black” Zainab is, but the two go out for tea and they immediately like each other. Mouna asks Zainab to take her somewhere that Zainab and Tarek liked to go, so the three of them take the ferry out to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the boat, Walter gets another call from Charles who is really wondering when Walter’s coming back to the university. Walter is reluctant to leave because of Tarek and also because he is beginning to form a strong bond with Mouna. That night over dinner, Mouna asks if Walter has ever been to Broadway because she loves the music from the Phantom of the Opera. She also asks about Walter’s new book he is supposedly writing. It is obvious from Walter’s response that he really hasn’t done any work on it.
Walter visits Tarek once more before returning to Connecticut. Tarek has become very scared and angry while in detention. He tells Walter that it isn’t fair, that he hasn’t committed any crime, and that there are no terrorists in detention because terrorists have money and support, and that he just wants to live his life and play his music. Walter says that he knows that it isn’t fair and Tarek says that Walter can’t know because he’s never been locked up. Walter simply replies that he is sorry. Tarek then says that people are moved sometimes without warning, moved to different centers in other states. He is obviously worried that this will happen to him.
Walter returns to his university, and we see him give a lecture and attend a meeting. We also see him in his house, eating cereal and drinking wine, and playing a cd that Tarek gave him and practicing his drumming. He also sells his piano to Ms. Watson. Walter soon takes a leave of absence and returns to Mouna in New York, who has been living in his apartment. He finds Mouna listening to a cd of his dead wife’s music and cleaning. He invites her out on a date and she accepts. Walter takes her to see the Phantom of the Opera and also out to dinner. They have a great time and she kisses him on the cheek. The next morning, Walter’s cell rings and wakes him up. Tarek has left a message that they are trying to move him and Walter and Mouna go immediately to the Center. At first, the official doesn’t want to deal with Walter because visiting hours haven’t started, but Walter is suddenly forceful and the man makes a call. He tells Walter that Tarek hasn’t been moved he’s been deported. In the film’s climactic scene, Walter rails against the system and almost gets himself arrested. Mouna appears and calmly escorts Walter out. They meet Zainab at the market and tell her what’s happened. Zainab cries and embraces Mouna.
That night, Mouna tells Walter that she has decided to return to Syria to be there for Tarek. Walter asks her not to go, because she won’t be able to come back, but Mouna knows that this is what is right. She spends the night with Walter in his bed just holding each other and she finally confesses that she did receive a deportation letter for Tarek, but that she threw it away. Tarek never knew that it had arrived and therefore, it is her fault that he has been deported. The next day, Walter waits with Mouna at the airport. He confesses again that he doesn’t want her to go, and Mouna says that she also wants to stay, but can’t. She thanks him for everything and calls him “habibi” or “beloved.” She then gets on the plane and the camera pans upward to the American flag as the screen fades into white…
…in the final scene of the film, Walter is in the subway. He is seated on a bench and takes out his drum. He begins to play at first a simple rhythm, but soon it develops into something more complex as the people around him begin to feel his sound.
Walter Vale is a professor at Connecticut University who is asked to deliver a paper at an academic conference for a bedridden colleague. Walter arrives to find Zainab, a Senegalese Muslim woman, and her boyfriend Tarek, from Syria, living in his apartment. He invites them to stay because he knows that they have nowhere to go.
Over the next few days, Walter gets to know them and starts to change. He starts learning to play the drum with Tarek and the two men form a bond. When Tarek is arrested in the subway and sent to a detention center, Walter does everything he can to help.