Walter Vale is a widowed Connecticut College economics professor who lives a fairly solitary existence. He fills his days by sometimes taking piano lessons in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist, and infrequently works on a new book. When he is asked to present a paper at an academic conference at New York University, he is not enthusiastic to make the trip, given he is only the nominal co-author and has never even read the complete work. Charles, his department head, insists and Walter is forced to attend.
When he arrives in his old apartment in Manhattan, Walter is startled to find a young unmarried couple living there, having rented it from a swindler who claimed it was his. Tarek is an immigrant from Syria, a Palestinian-Syrian djembe player, and Zainab is a Senegalese designer of ethnic jewelry. He later discovers both are illegal immigrants. Although they have no place to go, they hastily pack and leave, but Walter decides to let them stay. Over the next few days, a friendship slowly develops. Tarek teaches Walter to play the drum, and the two men join a group of others at a regular drum circle in Central Park.
On the way home, Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping, arrested for “failing” to pay his fare (although he actually had), and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. In order to prevent Tarek’s deportation from the United States, Walter hires an immigration lawyer. Feeling uncomfortable about remaining in the apartment with Walter, Zainab moves out to live with relatives in the Bronx.
Tarek’s mother, Mouna, unexpectedly arrives from her home in Michigan when she is unable to contact her son. Because she is also illegally in the States, she is also unable to visit him at the detention center. Hesitating, she accepts Walter’s offer to stay in the apartment, and the two develop a friendship. Walter confesses his life is unfulfilling; he dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and the book he is allegedly writing is nowhere near completion. It is revealed that Mouna’s journalist husband died following a lengthy politically motivated imprisonment in Syria, and she is concerned about her son’s future prospects if he is deported. The two begin to share a simple domestic existence, with Mouna preparing meals and Walter treating her to The Phantom of the Opera when she mentions her love for the original cast recording Tarek sent her as a gift.
Without warning, Tarek is summarily deported back to Syria. Mouna, left with no one in the States, decides to follow him and to return to live there. On their final night, Mouna joins Walter for a comforting embrace in bed, blaming herself for all that has gone wrong. Walter sees her off at the airport the next day. Alone once again, Walter plays his drum on a subway platform, as Tarek once told him he himself would like to do some time.