The protagonist of Pablo Larraín’s “Tony Manero” was a man obsessed to the point of insanity with achieving celebrity as the replication of someone else. So there’s a sort of inverse symmetry at work in the Larraín-produced “Nobody Knows I’m Here,” the strange little debut from Gaspar Antillo, about a man whose celebrity was stolen from him, and given to another. He is Memo, a taciturn recluse nourishing secret singing talent, played with tremendous grace by Jorge Garcia. Still best known as Hurley from “Lost,” Garcia quietly electrifies here in a role that feels like a breakout; for all the film’s superior craft and unsettling atmosphere-building, it is his sympathetic soulfulness that delivers the most resonant harmonics.
As a child, the pure-voiced Memo (played in home-movie-style flashbacks by Lukas Vergara), managed by his rapacious father (Alexander Goic), seemed on the cusp of pop-singing success when a producer suggested instead that his voice be recorded for Angelo, a more telegenic boy, to mime to. The song, “Nobody Knows I’m Here” — a tuneful earworm that just about avoids the irritation factor of, say, the title track from “That Thing You Do” despite similar heavy soundtrack rotation — becomes a hit and makes Angelo a star.
Years after being Milli Vanilli-ed, Memo has retreated about as far from the world as he can, withdrawing to an isolated sheep farm on Chile’s enormous, placid Lake Llanquihe, which is owned by his gruff uncle (Luis Gnecco, unrecognizable after playing the sleek, dapper title character in Larraín’s “Neruda”). And further still, he has withdrawn into his own bulky body, his weight coming almost palpably to signify additional armor against a callous world. Angelo (Gastón Pauls), meanwhile has parlayed his early stardom into a celebrity career, which Memo jealously monitors from the extreme sidelines.
Following Angelo’s career is only one of Memo’s secret compulsions. He also breaks into strangers’ houses when they’re not home, just to look around, and spends his evenings crouched at his sewing machine, tacking sequins and lurex and metallic fabrics into a sort of Technicolor Dreamcoat. Alone in the woods, Memo unfurls his spangly costume, puts on his old-fashioned Walkman headphones and closes his eyes, giving vent to a fantasy of fabulousness far from his grubby-shirted, gray-skied reality.
The actual story of the film, then, does not stray too far from the lonely-misfit-seeking-connection indie template; indeed, those credentials are significantly bolstered with the arrival of quirky outsider Marta (Millaray Lobos), a friendly fashion makeover consultant with a blunt fringe and Zoe Kazan’s breaking-dawn smile, who takes an unlikely interest in Memo, who reciprocates with equal parts alarm and shy attraction. Yet there is forever another force at work in Antillo’s film undercutting the bittersweet-dramedy vibe — an ominous undertow of spookiness and skeletons in the closet that makes for an intriguingly heady, if ultimately slightly misleading brew.
A lot of that mood is delivered by Larraín regular Sergio Armstrong’s marvelous, murdery camerawork, which occupies his usual half-lit register and suggests a mountainous malevolence lurking somewhere nearby, prowling through the eerie forests, drifting implacably over steel-gray waters, or framing Memo, dressed in a yellow slicker like the doomed kid in a Stephen King book, against the roaring blur of a waterfall. Carlos Cabezas Rocuant’s score, too, with its glimmering strings and far-off bells, leans toward the mysterious, despite there being no huge mystery here, except maybe the mystery of why this is all so mysterious. Surreal sequences that may or may not be actually happening also give us some striking imagery, like an inexplicably beautiful overhead shot of Memo vomiting up a viscous liquid that spreads around him in a dark pink corona as he retches. And occasional flourishes, like a cut between a high drone shot and an actual drone dropping unexpectedly down in front of Memo, have a welcome wittiness, even if they belong in a spikier film.
These opposing impulses — sweet and sinister — sometimes threaten to break the film apart, but Garcia’s performance always pulls the two halves back together. In fact his Memo is such a vivid character, with such a clearly enunciated inner life (despite having a total of maybe 20 words of dialogue), that we can just about plausibly imagine the gloomy cast of the movie’s reality is simply the projection of how he sees the unfriendly, ill-intentioned outside world. It is certainly not borne out by any major revelations in this slow-burn character piece, nor — and this is where it deviates from Larraín’s own early work — does it have any particular allegorical dimension. Instead, the somber atmospherics are an intriguing false-flag operation; “Nobody Knows I’m Here,” an involving and accomplished first film with a brilliant central turn, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.