The poster for Nanny creates the sense of a very specific, very familiar type of film through an extreme close-up of the face of Aisha, her starring role. She looks distressed, her features still recognizable but slightly distorted by stains that look like dripping paint or dripping water. It’s easy to imagine this image accompanied by discordant music that extracts the tension and dread of stillness, completing a story about how this woman comes undone because of the things she has seen. The poster announces that Nanny is published by Blumhouse, a studio primarily known for high-level horror. The slogan is “We are haunted by what we leave behind”.
All these clues Nanny is a horror movie are not false advertising: writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But she’s noticeably less concerned with serving up jumps and jerks to the audience than creating resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and nanny under the thumb of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements intended to visualize her internal struggles never quite cohere. .
Right away, the film offers a sense of the rigid dynamic between nanny Aisha (Anna Diop) and her employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The camera frames the two of them from a distance in one unbroken shot, as Amy hands Aisha a large binder of directions, contact information, meal plans, and more. Amy isn’t exactly hostile, but the camera position creates a sense of estrangement, chilling the warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing terrible – a somewhat showy first impression, an air of entitlement. But then Amy crosses that professional boundary by asking for a hug. Aisha is briefly confused, but she obliges her boss. Amy doesn’t present the request as a requirement, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha has been hired to take care of Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but she is hardly able to turn down the woman in charge of her paycheck, especially on her first day on the job.
Aisha dutifully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s filing cabinet, though her payment is in cash and otherwise off the books. She’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s barely oblivious to the situation; as an undocumented former teacher, this is simply the best avenue she can find for her skills. Aisha needs the money – she hopes to bring her young son, Lamine, from Senegal. His absence weighs heavily on her and is compounded by her profession: while she bonds with Rose, cares for Rose, and generally lavishes her attention, her own son is an ocean away. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine runs entirely through her phone, either in scrambled video chats or in recordings of the moments she missed.
Aisha’s guilt for leaving her son behind manifests in strange visions. The rain is falling inside. A distant figure stands in the distance in a lake. Spider legs cast a long shadow that unfolds like an open mouth. Aisha is able to identify some of the images, telling Rose stories about Anansi the spider, and how her small size forces her to leverage her cunning to survive. When speaking with an older woman (dead Pool(Leslie Uggams) who is more versed in the supernatural, she learns that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to communicate something to her. Aisha is fluent in several languages and teaching them to Rose is part of her job. But everything these mythical characters try to tell him is a mystery.
Hallucinations and time wasting related to guilt and/or trauma are standard territory for freaks out in art house movies. At present, a year without one or two cinematic descendants of The Babadook would feel incomplete. But Nanny stands out for its imagery, done with rare skill and drawn from folk roots far removed from the standard terrors of other films of dark entities pounding on the wall. While Aisha’s visions disturb her and are meant to disturb viewers by association, they are understated and beautiful in the way they bathe her in ethereal light. It feels like the visions might not be so disturbing after all, if only she could figure out what they mean.
Where another movie might have focused exclusively on Aisha’s pain and mental unraveling, Jusu is careful to show its protagonist trying to live their life and regain some control. She tells a friend of Lamine’s absent father and begins a romantic relationship with the building’s handsome doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. She speaks out when her employers fail to pay her and the unpaid overtime starts piling up. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says he’ll “advance” the payment to Aisha, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: it’s not an advance if that’s what she already owes.
Jusu excels at highlighting uncomfortable power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be strained and complex rather than tipping into overtly sinister territory. There’s no meanness in the way they treat Aisha, but her discomfort with the liberties they take and the boundaries they cross is still palpable. Amy lends Aisha a dress at one point, insisting that it suits her skin, although Aisha remarks that it is a bit tight. Adam’s photograph adorns the apartment in large, enlarged prints, and he is eager to speak with Aisha about the subjects of his art and fame: poverty and black strife. These interactions are superficially reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s awkward “meeting the family” moments. get outbut the truth about them is shrewdly mundane: her employers feel so comfortably above her that they don’t have to consider her interiority at all.
This dynamic is so well executed, in fact, that it’s curious that Jusu even bothered to dabble in horror, given how less effective it is than drama. Aisha’s chilling visions are the film’s weakest part, ending abruptly while raising a recurring question: Will an audience only stand still to watch the social perils of a Senegalese immigrant if they are promised a few scary wandering periods in an apartment between?
Horror becomes a storytelling crutch when used in this way, as if it’s the only way to purge the happy expectations typical of a more conventional film. The Oscar-bait version of Nanny is as easy to imagine as the creepiness suggested by the poster, perhaps retaining Diop’s nuanced lead performance but smothering it in tearful speeches and a rewarding theme of virtue, where hard work pays off and the Wicked characters see the error of their ways or get what happens to them. Horror may really be the only mode of storytelling that reliably prepares audiences for this pessimistic version of history, but Jusu’s otherwise impressive work suffers when she splits her lens and hides her darkest ideas. clear under gender distractions.
Nanny debuts in theaters on November 23 and premieres on Prime Video on December 16.
. nanny review immigrant story blumhouse problem horror