Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Writer: Nikyatu Jusu
Starring: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
By Calum Cooper
“Nanny” (2022) is a captivating, disquieting character piece wrapped within the shoal of the horror genre. Anna Diop plays Aisha, an undocumented worker from Senegal who’s recently moved to New York. She takes a job working as a nanny for an affluent family, hoping to save up enough money to bring her son over to New York too. However, as Aisha longs for her son and fears for her current status, she begins to experience eerie visions that embody her deepest fears.
“Nanny” marks the directorial debut for Nikyatu Jusu, who comes out swinging with this feature. Its a deeply unsettling film that is content to take its time and let its mysteries unravel gradually. What initially seems like another take on the microaggressions of social and racial inequality – think “Get Out” (2017) – transforms into a fascinating and well-crafted look at anxiety, grief, and uncertainty. Although the film doesn’t quite stick the landing in its final act, this does not negate the clear talent on display.
While there is a clear commentary running throughout, Jusu focuses much of her efforts on building atmosphere. The use of long takes is especially prevalent in the creation of this. During the first interactions between Aisha and the affluent matriarch of the family she works for, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), the awkwardness is palpable. But the more they interact, the more this dynamic shifts from awkward to microaggressive stress and dislike. Aisha’s interactions with the family patriarch are less hostile, but no less uncomfortable for their own reasons. The way Jusu forces her audience to stay with these characters during their lowest points builds the tension stellarly.
This tension is not solely linked to these uncomfortable character interactions, and bleeds into the visual metaphors that Jusu adopts. Aisha grows close to the young girl she nannies, Rose (Rose Decker), by sharing her culture, and particularly her homeland food, with her. This cultural presence informs the visions Aisha has. Water plays an especially sinister role in Aisha’s visions, while Anansi the Spider is a recurring story that Aisha reads to Rose. This story is of a trickster who uses wit and cunning where he is unable to overpower his foes. In many ways this story reflects Aisha as a character, as she is an unassuming figure who must use her smarts to survive in a foreign and unequal land. Yet it also plays into the ambiguous nature of the visions, resulting in many nail-biting sequences, and one especially horrifying moment involving a bath and a kitchen knife which suggests the extent of Aisha’s mental anguish. Rina Yang‘s cinematography imbues the puzzling visuals with darkness and worrying abstractness that leaves you gasping for breath.
Perhaps the most significant themes are that of loss and isolation. Even though Aisha has moved to New York to find better opportunities, she had to leave much of herself, including her own son, behind. The film’s eerie atmosphere feeds into that isolation, as do the tense character dynamics between Aisha and her affluent employers, who take advantage of her labour and underpay her to boot. It is a personal horror that twins with the visual horror Jusu is utilising. In the process, her direction brings out a terrific performance from Anna Diop. Whether she is anxious, furious, or terrified, Diop steals every scene she’s in.
“”Nanny” (2022) is a captivating, disquieting character piece wrapped within the shoal of the horror genre.”
“Nanny” keeps up this strong momentum for the vast majority of its runtime. Yet it sadly runs out of steam towards the end by rushing to its conclusion. So hasty is it to get to the finish line that it seems to gloss over otherwise major developments, and its attempts at an ambiguous ending don’t feel earned. It’s a pity to see as it has so many strong textual and subtextual aspects to its craftsmanship and storytelling. This is a rare film that might have benefitted from even as little as five more minutes, if only to flesh out its ending better and tie up its character arcs more tightly.
Regardless, “Nanny” is a suspenseful horror movie that’s rich with ideas and motifs. Its atmosphere is haunting, its performances are great, and its themes are as thought provoking and engaging as they are comfortably at home within its horror genre. In spite of its conclusion, it’s a promising start to Nikyatu Jusu’s career. Here’s hoping this is the first of many interesting films to come.
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