A poignant, compelling, character study, “Nobody’s Watching” is focused on Nico (Guillermo Pfening), a gay Argentine actor adrift in New York City, practically invisible. Caring for his friend Andrea’s (Elena Roger) baby, Theo, Nico sits with other nannies in the park. They think he doesn’t speak Spanish and that he resembles a less handsome version of the soap opera actor who ended up in a coma on “Rivales.” Nico, in fact, was that character on the soap, but he left it — and Argentina — because his boyfriend, Martín (Rafael Ferro), a producer on the show, would not leave his wife and kids.
Exiled in New York, Nico, a year later, continues dodging his ex’s calls and hopes a long-delayed film project will get off the ground. To fill his empty days and earn a little money, he does odd jobs like waiting tables and cleaning rental properties, in addition to babysitting. Nico sleeps on the pullout couch in his lesbian friend Claire’s (Kerri Sohn) apartment. Most of his possessions are in a storage facility.
Director/ co-writer Julia Solomonoff immerses viewers in Nico’s life and world. He is rarely stopped on the street by fans, as he was in Argentina, but he also hardly works as an actor. He tries to be helpful to friends and strangers, but he also engages in self-destructive behavior. The film is absorbing for viewers not put off by Nico’s self-absorption.
Nico’s actions, good and bad, are all part of his way of testing what he can get away with as someone living under the radar. He uses his invisibility to shoplift items from a supermarket in Theo’s baby carriage. He takes a receipt found in the rental apartment to return the goods on it for cash and a pair of headphones he wants. He also picks up guys at bars to have a place to spend the night when Claire’s couch is occupied by someone else. Nico is so unnoticed he can stretch standing naked in front of an open window without worrying that anyone is watching.
Nico’s brazenness, though, really masks his own fears and insecurities. Without a visa or green card, Nico is illegally in the US, and his actions — from getting into a bar fight to rejecting an offer for a job and a marriage proposal — all suggest he wants to get caught and be returned to Argentina. Except, he figures, “nobody’s watching.” The film is subtly political in its portrayal of how undocumented immigrants operate in an unseen, underground, often cash-only economy.
The title “Nobody’s Watching” also doubles as a pun about Nico’s few acting roles in New York mostly being ones nobody actually sees. One “performance” has Nico faking it that he’s a success when his friend and “Rivales” co-star Pablo (Marco Antonio Caponi) visits him. Nico pretends to live at the empty rental apartment, even borrowing Claire’s surfboard as a prop. Pablo sees through the charade almost immediately.
Nico does get one shot at success when he meets Kara Reynolds (Cristina Morrison), a film producer who is one of Andrea’s yoga students. Kara bluntly tells Nico, “Nobody cares if you are a star in your own country.” She encourages him to not be shy or overly proud, to work out, get rid of his accent, and darken his blonde hair. The suggestions might help Nico fit in, but he is either unable or unwilling to follow them.
How Nico feels about his life in New York comes across brilliantly in Pfening’s expressive performance, which has snagged him several Best Actor prizes, including from the Tribeca Film Festival. Pfening’s comfort — or discomfort — registers clearly on his face and in his body language in every scene, whether awkwardly changing Theo in a park or in a quiet moment sitting in a doorway, contemplating his next move after a setback. A natural observer, Nico mimics the actions of a bicyclist in traffic for an audition, and we see his heartache and loneliness when an exchange with Martín triggers him to have anonymous sex.
Solomonoff makes effective use of choice Manhattan locations to underscore Nico’s anonymity in many aspects of his life. As Nico bikes through Chelsea or walks through Times Square, along the High Line, or outside Lincoln Center, he is both at the center of it all and lost among the multitudes. Nico is achingly sad and human, which is what Solomonoff’s film captures so beautifully.
NOBODY’S WATCHING | Directed by Julia Solomonoff | Figa Films | Opens Sep. 8 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org