My streaming gem: why you should watch Nobody's Watching

Continuing our series of writers recommending underappreciated movies is an ode to a 2017 drama about an actor struggling to make it in New York City

What happens when a man who is accustomed to being the centre of attention finds himself becoming invisible? When a life busked from cash in hand jobs trips into freefall? Julia Solomonoff’s delicately textured character study follows Nico (Guillermo Pfening), the former star of an Argentinian soap opera, who trades autograph hunters for anonymity and moves from Buenos Aires to New York to take a role in an indie movie. Instead he finds himself unmoored in a city which sees him as just another Hispanic immigrant. If it sees him at all.

A film which exposes the vulnerability of a life lived without a safety net, with no legal status and no financial support, might seem a little close for comfort for some viewers at this particular moment in time. But what the film explores, achingly and eloquently, are the existential implications of dislocation and isolation. The way that worth can be weighed in interactions with other people and how a dissonance can build in a person when their self-image doesn’t match the way the world views them. Deftly edited and anchored by a subtly revealing performance from Pfening, this US and Argentina-set drama is a bittersweet little gem which, crucially, hints at hope once the clouds part and the dark days are passed.

That Nico’s exile from his glittering life in Argentina is self-imposed is a key point in this migrant story. He’s well-connected, well-travelled. His pursuit of an American dream is driven by defiance rather than desperation. The loose offer of a role in an as yet unfunded film is the impetus he needed to end his on-off love affair with Martín, the married producer of the television series he stars in. Success – and the possibility that this next instalment of his life won’t be a success doesn’t initially occur to him – will be his revenge.

But when we meet Nico, he has already been in the city long enough for his visa to expire, his money to run out and for doubts about the future to start to take root. The film’s start date, pushed back several times, has taken on a mirage quality, insubstantial but tantalisingly still on the horizon. The jobs and side hustles that keep Nico solvent are just about bearable while he can still see himself with a work visa and a film career somewhere in the future. But when the film collapses once and for all, he can no longer comfortably tell himself he’s an actor filling the time between jobs with bar work, cleaning, childcare and a sideline in shoplifting. Having previously wafted away the offer of payment for looking after the baby of a well-heeled friend from Argentina, there comes a moment when his pride crumbles and he accepts the roll of notes offered by her husband. It stings, this readjustment in status from peer to hired help. The camera lingers on Pfening’s face long enough to catch an involuntary wince that he hides from the couple.

Restless handheld cinematography and brisk, sometimes almost breathless editing, give a sense of the exhausting rhythm of Nico’s hand-to-mouth existence and the superhuman juggling act required to muster the charisma that used to come naturally. Time and again, the lens is drawn to Pfening, and a remarkable layered performance which offers glimpses beneath his actor’s professional poise. Nico is someone who has taken for granted the privilege that his looks – sunny complexion and blond hair – bestow. But now at auditions for bit parts, casting directors make it clear that his face doesn’t fit. “Nobody cares that you are a star in your own country. Get rid of your accent, darken your hair,” a producer tells him, adding that “it’s an exciting time for Latinos”. As the easy charm gradually flakes away and reveals his mounting desperation, so the superficial circle in which he moves recoils from him. Failure is a turn-off.

Solomonoff, a writer, director and actor who is based in Buenos Aires and who teaches at Columbia University in New York, brings a perceptive outsider’s eye to the city. New York is both alluring and cruel; like Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange, the film depicts subsisting in the city as akin to negotiating an unpredictable quasi-abusive relationship, a relationship not dissimilar to the one Nico fled in the first place. It’s an experience that leaves him looking increasingly beaten up as Manhattan’s showy autumn colours damp down and winter creeps in. But, as the film suggests in a bright coda, broken hearts eventually mend. And the sun shines again.

  • Nobody’s Watching is available on Amazon Prime in the US and UK

Contributor

Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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