This isn’t the usual struggling-actor-in-New-York scenario, even if it shares many elements of that oft-told narrative. Nor is it the standard immigrant-in-Manhattan film, although there are plenty of parallels. Instead, Julia Solomonoff, in her third feature, takes a story about a gay Argentine actor on the rebound trying to make a life for himself in the Big Apple, and through a felicitous mix of sensitive writing, understanding of milieu and faith in both her characters and her performers, delivers an involving, empathic drama that recognizes, as few other films do, the liminal lives of middle-class non-citizens struggling to find a place for themselves in New York. As a title, “Nobody’s Watching” is proving to be a misnomer, as attested by a slew of awards and its current limited Stateside release.
Solomonoff’s previous two features (“Sisters” and “The Last Summer of La Boyita”) were accused by some of an emotional coolness, a charge that certainly won’t be leveled at her latest and best. Not only does she balance poignancy with compassion, she realistically places her three-dimensional protagonist in an unforgiving social environment whose attractions as well as problems are drawn with the sharp eye of someone who seems to have experienced them first-hand. Juxtaposing the contrasting seasons — when there’s snow in New York, the sun is blazing in Buenos Aires — adds an additional sensation of something being off-kilter, and beautifully elides with the main character’s feeling of displacement.
At home in Argentina, Nico (Guillermo Pfening) is a recognized actor in a popular soap, but he’s in Manhattan now, where even the Latin American nannies in the park assume from his blond hair that he’s a gringo. He tells people he moved Stateside to work on a film project, but the real reason is he couldn’t cope anymore with being in a clandestine relationship with his narcissistic married producer Martín (Rafael Ferro). While waiting for the film to get off the ground, he’s scraping by as a cocktail waiter in the kind of hip bar he’d have frequented as a customer in Buenos Aires.
Living arrangements are less than ideal: He shares a small open-plan apartment with lesbian Claire (Kerri Sohn), a well-meaning friend whose circle of pals makes Nico feel even more alone. He’s much closer with fellow Argentine Andrea (Elena Roger), volunteering to look after her infant Theo while she’s running her upscale yoga/fitness center. But Andrea’s living the New York dream, comfortably ensconced in a Village brownstone with her wealthy French husband Pascal (Pascal Yen-Pster), and while she offers Nico sympathy, their realities are too far apart for him to feel this is an equal friendship.
Options keep getting slimmer: the film role he banked on isn’t happening, and casting directors aren’t interested in a South American who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the dark Latin Lover. He has a brief hope that hotshot producer Kara Reynolds (Cristina Morrison) will get him work, but instead she advises him to lose the accent and dye his hair black. Meanwhile, the energy it takes to keep up an illusion of satisfaction is harder to sustain, and when Martín calls during a layover in New York, Nico’s sense of displacement, on all levels, approaches breaking point.
Solomonoff knows New York well (she teaches at NYU and Columbia), and she manages to use the stereotypes without making them feel old or trite. The city’s autumnal colors don’t lose their beauty when Nico can’t access the dream life he wants; if anything, they almost taunt him, reminding him that he can look but not take ownership of any of it, even as he breezily cycles through Manhattan with a familiarity bordering on a sense of possession. In the end, it’s not really “up to you, New York” as the song says, even for good looking middle-class men who technically should have the city at their feet. But maybe that’s because Nico’s drive is more guided by proving something to himself and Martín rather than simply making it in Manhattan.
Nico is the ideal role for Pfening, who expertly captures the character’s need for companionship, whether through tender scenes with infant Theo or via the hungry immediacy of a one-night-stand. Torn between pride and loneliness, Nico lies to maintain his dignity, and Pfening’s subtle shifts reveal the toll while struggling to keep up the façade (no wonder he took home Tribeca’s best acting award). Richly toned visuals and Lucio Bonelli’s accomplished, measured camerawork are further reasons to watch.