Few things hurt the same way as being really good at something, and not being able to get a job doing it. Julia Solomonoff’s Nobody’s Watching is a funny and sad film about a fish-out-of-water Argentine TV actor trying to make it in the big time of New York’s film world. The protagonist, played perhaps with a hint of personal experience by Guillermo Pfening, makes ends meet in the big city doing odd jobs, serving drinks at a rooftop bar, and on the kindness of an expat friend who married rich. All the while, he’s hot on the heels of landing a big roll in a major international film. It’s a big risk – he was a serious rising star on a Buenos Aires soap opera. But he’s not just making a big play. He’s also escaping an abusive sexual relationship with the show’s producer (who’s cheating on his wife with the male actor). From that premise, we embark upon a sea of troubles as more and more awkward and costly circumstances push the desperate thespian against a corner.
At core of the story is longing. The character is a diligent worker who is actually getting job offers left and right. But none of them are for dramatic roles. One belittlingly related lead is to teach acting in Iowa (“I didn’t move to New York to go to Iowa”). He’s such a natural at babysitting his friend’s infant boy, fellow nannies make fast friends with him. In one particularly heartbreaking moment, a single mom even tries to recruit him to be a “substitute dad” to her son. All the while, he hustles to auditions, humbles himself for connections and lowers himself to the point of petty theft. On top of this, his frequent Skype calls to his mother are filled with lies about his prospects and financial situation. Too proud to beg, or to even let on about his struggles, the story comes to a boil when a successful out-of-town friend comes for a sudden visit. The unhappy maneuvers he negotiates to hide his failures from his old TV colleague only add to his sense of defeat.
What could have easily have gone off the rails as a series of zany low-grade sitcom vignettes settles in as a restrained effort relying on quieter moments of experience showing (rather than dialogue explaining) both the laughs and the tears. Refusing to play it safe, there’s a lot of tough scenes between the lighter fare, including some stark and belligerent sexual encounters. The poor actor making poor choices is sometimes funny to watch, sometimes absolutely cringeworthy and often both. Powerful emotional pivots happen in casual gestures, a twist of the face, or a shot of someone grabbing a cab. The economy of the action successfully captures the pain of disappointment, self-betrayal and even positive resignation.
Don’t walk in looking for escapist gags or Oscar-hounding histrionics. Instead, expect to encounter subtle realism, patiently uncomfortable scenes, and a whole lot of empathy. It’s never fun watching dreams die. But there are ways to seek dignity in humiliation. This film goes a long way to deliver an enrichening montage that evokes emotions rather than manipulating them. The process yields a lot of honesty, something often hard to come by in popular cinema. Nobody’s Watching is a warm look at human compromise and battered bravery in the service of hope. A rewarding ride through the painful process of maturation.