Three recent American films—Under the Same Moon, The Visitor and Frozen River—have dealt with the plight of illegal immigrants. Now being released in the U.S. is the Polish entry to the 79th Academy Awards, Retrieval, whose central character, a 19-year-old boxer named Wojtek (Antoni Pawlicki), falls in love with a single mother, Katia (Natalya Vdovina), a Ukrainian living illegally in Poland.

Katia is barely surviving a hardscrabble existence for herself and her son while working as a stripper. She cannot even send her sickly 11-year-old boy Andrij (Dimitri Melnichuk) to school because of her undocumented status. What is worse, when it becomes public knowledge that his mother’s lover Wojtek is a street gangster, Andrij’s peers take out their hostility on the boy—the foreign kid who speaks Ukrainian rather than Polish.

Katia is on the run from an abusive husband, and there is much in her sad eyes that foreshadows the future as well as reflecting her past. Novelty is not Retrieval’s strongpoint. We quickly grasp that what can go wrong probably will, and that will lead to the really, really bad things that we may or may not anticipate.

What gives Retrieval its unique drive and power is the exceedingly accomplished cast, along with a grainy, sepia-colored view of the world from director Slawomir Fabicki, who seems determined to take handheld camera shots to new and varied lengths. This film spies on its characters as much as presents them. People are seen from doorways as if caught in the middle of their secret lives. Also, the way grim poverty and exalted middle-class values are constantly juxtaposed gives us new insights into the capitalistic struggles and bourgeois arrogance of Poland in the not-terribly-progressive 21st century.

Retrieval offers heroes forced into villainy and villains trying desperately to incorporate their better selves—and usually failing in the process. But at least this film lets us know what the effort costs.

Wojtek strikes us as a sweet but naïve boy on the verge of manhood, doomed to take on challenges that will always be slightly over his head. His true love, Katia, is considerably more mature—and it is only a matter of time, we fear, before she can no longer excuse his ongoing dishonesty and growing inhumanity. This sad but sympathetic couple is contrasted with one of the great villains of current cinema, Jacek Braciak’s Gazda—the neatly dressed, cliché-spouting boss of a smalltime loan-sharking operation who pays well but demands more than the devil himself. He may not have the panache of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but his kind of gangster is, unfortunately, actually present in the world today. A handsome fellow who bounces around the floor with his children and a good husband who never raises his voice to his pleasant wife, Gazda’s one ineluctable credo is to give to the desperate, but hurt as brutally as possible anyone who crosses him. He is an articulate, even charming monster, a mixture of prosperous family man and savage enforcer of his own private system of justice. The longer Wojtek knows him, the more he risks triggering a walking time bomb, dangerous to his enemies but far more lethal to his friends.