2022, R, 98 min. Directed by Nikyatu Jusu. Starring Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Dec. 2, 2022
Offering a textured point of view from a type of character not given much visibility in a lot of mainstream cinema, Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny is a laudable and clearly deeply personal story.
This genre-bending film depicts the struggles of Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Diop) as she gets what is often the most immediately available form of work for someone in her position: domestic work. She’s nannying for Amy (Monaghan) and Adam (Spector), two rich, seemingly well-meaning New York liberal types who live in their chic and gentrified apartment with their daughter, Rose (Decker). Her work is in an effort to be able to transport her own son, still living in Senegal with her cousin, to America – essentially raising another couple’s child so she can have the opportunity to raise her own.
Aisha’s day-to-day life becomes defined by constantly evolving tensions and dynamics defined by race, class, and expected societal roles. Amy and Adam both indulge in their fair share of microaggressions. Amy, in particular, is strict about the food Rose eats and it becomes a secret Aisha must harbor when she begins feeding Amy some of her cultural dishes. Rose beginning to latch on to Aisha as an alternative mother doesn’t help to alleviate the tension, nor does the fact that her parents’ marriage is seemingly on the rocks.
As if she doesn’t have enough to navigate, Aisha is soon overcome by haunting visions and nightmares that seem to be manifesting from deep within her psyche. Jusu isn’t afraid to play with and defy expectations of what type of movie this is allowed to be, constantly adjusting it into disparate forms and genres. It’s not quite the full-tilt social horror of Jordan Peele (though it feels inspired) but it doesn’t limit itself to preconceived notions of what “psychological horror” should be either. There’s even inspiration taken from West African folktales, which make for sequences that engage with the realm of the mythic.
It’s no doubt a beguiling mixture of ingredients, but to say it’s a perfect amalgamation would be dishonest. The constantly shifting modes give this a palpable sense of disorder – perhaps indicative of Aisha’s worsening mental state, but it also just feels clunky. There’s certainly a case to be made that this would have been more effective a narrative if it leaned more one way or the other: either a realistic drama about the immigrant experience of America or centering the genre elements with more force. As is, for as unique a perspective as this movie offers, it feels like a woefully anonymous amalgamation of other vaguely artsy, genre-film-adjacent psychological thriller fare in its structure.
It’s unfortunate, because this staggering story and the stunning, vulnerable performance from Diop get diluted amidst the disarray. Still, Jusu walks away from this a promising filmmaker to watch out for, clearly capable of conjuring a stirring mood and a striking image. Nanny isn’t able to follow through on all of its ideas, but those ideas are pretty undeniable.