Widowed Connecticut College economics professor Walter Vale lives a fairly solitary existence. He fills his hours by taking piano lessons in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist, and works on a new book, although his efforts at both are not producing encouraging results. When he is asked to present a paper at a conference at New York University, he hesitates to comply, given he is only the nominal co-author and never even read the paper. Charles, his department head, persists, and Walter is forced to attend.
When he arrives at the apartment he maintains in Manhattan, he is startled to discover a young couple living there, having rented it from a swindler who claimed it was his. They are Tarek, a Palestinian-Syrian djembe player, and Zainab, 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 follows them and persuades them to return. 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 an impromptu drum circle in Central Park.
En route home, Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping, arrested for failing to pay his fare, and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. In order to prevent Tarek's deportation, 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. Also in the States illegally, she accepts Walter's offer to stay in the apartment, and the two develop a friendship. Walter confesses his life is unfullfilling: He dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and the book he allegedly is 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 to Syria, and Mouna decides to follow him. Alone once again, Walter plays his drum on a subway platform, as Tarek once told him he himself would like to do some time.