Julia Solomonoff’s third feature finds the accomplished Argentine director in a naturalistic year-in-the-life mode, examining the somewhat aimless expatriate life of a Buenos Aires soap opera hunk in Brooklyn and Manhattan. As in her 2009 film, The Last Summer of La Boyita, Solomonoff here exhibits a scrupulous control of her material and milieu that’s all too rare in episodic, humanistic, indie-movie life studies. There’s nothing fussy about any shot of Nobody’s Watching, but there’s also no shot wasted, and no shot that doesn’t communicate something vital about the city or her protagonist, the blond and heartbroken Nico (played by Guillermo Pfenig, who was awarded the prize for best actor at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival). For Nico and Solomonoff, who teaches in New York, the city is nothing like it tends to be in movies: It’s no romantic backdrop, libertine wonderland, hellish crimescape or open-minded anything-goes setting for reinvention. Instead, it has streets and staircases and cramped audition spaces where Nico, who can pass as an American white boy until he speaks, mostly goes unnoticed. New York isn’t where he finds himself; it’s where his selfhood gets dissolved.
Anonymity at first seems a novelty: He takes babysitting jobs, and while sitting in a park with an infant he overhears women speaking in Spanish about how much he looks like an actor on the soap Rivales — and how they don’t need to stop talking about him because clearly this blond dude can’t understand them. Since he looks well-heeled, and he’s often got a baby strapped to his chest, he takes up shoplifting as a hobby, and Solomonoff doesn’t bother wringing his drugstore theft for suspense. He knows he won’t get caught, and we’re encouraged to believe he’s right. Late in the film, he points out, with some weariness, that nobody watches the security cameras that have certainly captured his stealing, but it’s unclear whether he recognizes that his hair and skin have protected him from scrutiny. He’s never profiled the way a Latino immigrant often is, but he does face a curious stereotyping: American casting agents and producers have no work for a Latino man who looks Caucasian but speaks with an Argentine accent. So, Nico takes babysitting jobs and wanders the city, shoplifting and auditioning, telling his mother via Skype that he’s getting acting work, all as Solomonoff teases out the hurt in his backstory. Up north, Nico, who is gay, feels more free to be open about his sexuality, but the man he loves, of course, is back home, married with kids.
Solomonoff has crafted an arresting tale of privilege and displacement, of the ironies of navigating American society as an outsider, of what newcomers expect of New York and what it actually offers. Occasionally, Nico receives a visitor from back home, and his life and the city brighten: He goes to a rooftop Halloween party with another actor, and the night pulses with possibility. Nico performs the role of the busy, in-demand, totally cosmopolitan New Yorker, when in actuality he often has nothing to do but sulk by the waterfront; Pfenig, who is almost always on screen, reveals to us through grimaces and pained eyes the toll of Nico’s performance, but also the stubbornness, disbelief and disappointment that he tells himself nobody sees because nobody’s watching. But he fears they are. If he can’t make it here, can he make it anywhere?