The Tribeca Film Festival’s selection of “Nobody’s Watching” for its International Dramatic Competition is certainly a canny move, as the film couldn’t find a better home than this New York fest. Despite its transnational reach, Julia Solomonoff’s latest film — her first since “The Last Summer Of La Boyita” in 2009 — conveys the universal experience of actors struggling to make ends meet in the Big Apple. It’s easy to imagine a number of thespians, present at Tribeca to support their own indies, stumbling into a screening of this film and seeing their own experiences reflected on-screen. Solomonoff’s depiction of the career struggles of an actor torn between New York City and his native Buenos Aires is compelling throughout its 100-minute run time. Despite its watchability, though, “Nobody’s Watching” occasionally struggles to find the balance between discomfort and catharsis in order to make a lasting impression.
Although nominally an Argentine film, “Nobody’s Watching” only begins and ends its journey in the South American country. In between, soap actor Nico (Guillermo Pfening, a regular collaborator with Solomonoff who just won the International Acting Prize at Tribeca) finds himself in New York, picking up odd jobs and doggedly pursuing a continually delayed feature-film role with an up-and-coming Mexican filmmaker. The intimate style of “Nobody’s Watching” rules out the employment of exposition dumps to fill in the background of Nico’s life in Argentina and instead depends on attentive spectators to parse out the gaps. Chief among these mysteries is the protagonist’s other reason to leave Buenos Aires: the identity of the lover (Rafael Ferro) that Nico left behind in the film’s opening shots.
In a surprising act of generosity, powerful producer Kara Reynolds (Cristina Morrison) takes a meeting with Nico and gives him a piece of advice that we, the audience, all know to be true: “You can’t be shy or proud.” To Kara, this means taking parts on Spanish-language soaps and international co-productions, as well as refining his look and diminishing his prominent accent. In the larger context of “Nobody’s Watching,” this warning speaks to the protagonist’s frustrating insistence on maintaining the pretense of success, even though he is effectively homeless and cycles between the couches of acquaintances every night.
Director Solomonoff deserves credit for her seamless integration of queer themes into the film’s larger concerns. Nico’s sexuality remains largely incidental to the plot and never overwhelms the primary obstacles to Nico’s achieving success in the United States. In part a consequence of his public persona as a masculine presence on an Argentine soap, Nico is gay but “straight-acting,” convincingly enough that it seems as though he is willing to go back in the closet to curry favor with the superstar producer.
In keeping with the film’s play on masculinity and performance, the scenes in which he moonlights as a nanny are among the film’s most interesting. Early in the film, his light-haired appearance makes him the gossip of the Latina caretakers at the park. Here, this erroneous assumption gets laughs from all involved (the women chatter about how he looks like he’s never changed a diaper), but later, his look prevents him from getting roles built for Hispanic stereotypes. Similarly, Nico butts heads with the father of the child he is responsible for, provoking alpha-male tendencies that are rarely depicted by gay men on-screen.
At his most self-destructive, Nico steals from a drug store, trusting that the baby he is taking care of will dispel suspicions of theft. These scenes in particular lend a clunky meaning to the film’s title — literally, no one is watching the security cameras. The coarseness of this metaphor encapsulates the deficiencies of “Nobody’s Watching,” wherein Nico’s struggles are stretched to take on a greater meaning, yet fall short. The character, and film, remain frustratingly static and lack the playfulness of a comparable film like Matías Piñeiro’s 2016 effort “Hermia And Helena” — also about actors oscillating between New York and Argentina. This kind of balance would also offer a respite from Nico’s awkward encounters and disheartening career prospects; though genuine, these moments are regularly discomforting.
Despite some flat moments, “Nobody’s Watching” is consistently engrossing, and the Tribeca jury recognized a worthy Best Actor recipient in lead performer Pfening. Following on the memorable Chilean effort “Family Life” in Sundance’s own international-programming strand, it is clear that festival programmers are picking up on the crisis of masculinity that has become increasingly prevalent in contemporary Latin American cinema, particularly as seen through the perceptive gaze of the films’ female helmers. All eyes are now on Cannes at May and TIFF in September to continue the thread and further bring the achievements of these national cinemas to the forefront. [B]