A story of identity and homesickness, Julia Solomonoff’s Nobody’s Watching obsesses over the displacement felt by Nico (Guillermo Pfening), a famous actor from Argentina looking to make it big in New York City. Throughout the film, Nico stands on the periphery of his new world, not quite ever belonging. Having a thick accent and now living in the Big Apple on an expired visa, he survives by working odd jobs, including babysitting for his well-to-do best friend, Andrea (Elena Roger). Down and out, he shoplifts, and because of his Germanic features he doesn’t attract the attention of a store’s surveillance, even getting a smile from a cashier. Which isn’t to say that his look is a blessing, as he’s too white to audition for most parts asking for Latino actors, and his accent is too thick for him to reap all the benefits of whiteness.
Nico chases after every opportunity to advance his career but finds himself on the short end of everything, and Pfening brings to vibrant life his character’s unsettled frustration over his professional disappointment. Whenever Nico tells half-truths about his modest successes, he’s shot through with a furious twitching energy, seeming to undo what he says with his face, appearing like he’s trying to wipe his lies off his own conscience as his countenance gives them away. Pfening makes clear that Nico’s distress stems from barely stifled fear, suspended as the man is between the impossibility of returning home a failure and being on the edge of being forced out of New York.
The film’s screenplay leanly establishes a rhythm that builds a sense of the ruptures—between past and present, success and failure, Buenos Aires and New York—that dominate Nico’s life. His wayward time in New York feels haunted by his controlling ex-lover, Martín (Rafael Ferro), and the pull of this relationship is presented slowly and weightily via flashbacks, smatterings of dialogue, and by Nico’s avoidance of his ex. The gradually unfolding description of their romance shades Nico’s characterization with an initially opaque sense that his actions are propelled by a desire to outshine, or at the very least forget, Martín as much as they are to find personal success.
And even as we follow Nico through his side jobs, hearing him discuss the projects he’s been working on, it’s a long time before he’s ever seen doing anything that resembles what he came to New York to do. Rather than make it only all too easy to draw the conclusion that this is another story about a struggling actor, Nobody’s Watching keeps its focus on the ancillary concerns in Nico’s life. As a result, the film ripples with a palpable sense of the sheer distance between Nico and his goals. And it’s this careful attention to narrative rhythm that strikes at the heart of the interminable sense of postponement that greets Nico at every juncture and underscores the social challenges he (or any other undocumented immigrant) faces.
However, when it comes to specifying the themes of isolation and Latino identity, Nobody’s Watching has a tendency to deliver its points a little too on the nose. A savvy producer (Cristina Morrison) who takes an interest in Nico speaks as if she’s delivering an instructional video: “It’s an exciting time for Latinos,” she utters shortly before crushing his spirt with the recommendation to “work out, get rid of the accent, and darken your hair.” It’s a true depiction of the demands of white society on Latinos, but it’s delivered with such plainness that it comes across as didactic rather than organic.