Ross is a high school student. He’s quiet, often at the margin of events, drifting through the places and scenes of his sleepy small town in Texas.
Though he doesn’t say much, he grapples with his brother’s death during a prank gone wrong — and the role he played in it. Nobody else knows what happened, but it hangs on him heavily, giving him a sense of isolation until his world — and his very self — seem unrecognizable.
Writer-director Nolan Wilson Goff’s short drama takes its tone and feel from its main character. Through its minimal dialogue and its precise cinematography, the world of the film is contemplative, observational, even just a touch removed, as if we’re drifting through this small slice of Texas, watching it shape and mold the characters within it. In its visual and narrative approach, it resembles the more experimental films of Gus Van Sant, another quintessentially American indie filmmaker whose work beautifully illuminates the condition of being an outsider within a community.
Visually, the film feels like a series of photographs that the characters waft through, often choosing to show the action through a static wide shot or through long floating tracking shots. Ross is set adrift within these tableaux, often in the background or off to the side, as if barely tethered to the world. The terrible knowledge he bears — and the guilt he has from the role he played in his brother’s death — also isolates him emotionally, just as he’s visually isolated in the film.
Lead actor Tommy O’Brien — from Netflix’s “Unbelievable” — offers an evocative performance, able to convey the weight of a terrible secret and guilt that is pushed well below the surface of everyday behavior, though it bubbles up at unexpected moments.
“Nobody Knows” ultimately feels like a meditation on grief, guilt and how carrying those heavy burdens can make us feel peripheral and alone, even when surrounded by places and people who we know intimately. The film’s beautifully fragile final scene, however, punctures the distance and remove, allowing the suppressed emotion to quietly float to the surface, in all its pain and tenderness.