Sundance Review: Nikyatu Jusu’s Debut Feature ‘Nanny’

Anna Diop in 'Nanny'

Have you ever sensed something is off in your life, and you see the signs but ignore them? Surely, that’s happened to everyone at one time or another. But have those ‘signs’ ever become so surreal and visceral you’re not sure what’s real and what’s reality? That is the core dilemma of Nikyatu Jusu’s horror drama Nanny. The film stars Anna Diop (Titans) as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who experiences wild and violent visions she can’t decipher. This is Jusu’s feature film debut competing in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic category. 

The film starts with Aisha sleeping; there is a visible spider crawling on her face and she wakes up. It’s a very important narrative point that happens so quickly, if you blink you might miss it.

During Aisha’s waking life, she’s a working woman employed by a wealthy family as a nanny to eight-year-old Rose. The girl’s parents are a weird pair in a marriage falling apart. Amy (Michelle Monaghan) is the despondent wife, and Adam (Morgan Spector) is a philandering husband. Aisha is caught in the middle as their martial problems are messing with her money — paying her late, or not at all. The money is important as she’s using it to save in order to bring her son Lamine from Senegal. 

Aisha begins having visions that sometimes cause her to go into a trance. They are mild at first, but the closer she gets to her son’s arrival, the visions become foreboding and malevolent. Two figures she sees in these visions are of Anansi (a spider popular in West African folklore) and Mami Wata (a mythical mermaid associated with rebirth). Aisha doesn’t understand why this is happening to her, but when she expects her son’s presence in New York, the horrific visions become clearer.

Every apparition is centered in and around water, which can signify rebirth. To the outside world, rebirth can be seen as a positive thing, but Nanny displays that the journey of starting anew isn’t always harmonious.

Jusu (who also wrote the story), uses folklore and the element of tradition to communicate a message to the film’s heroine. Aisha is frustrated with her current work situation, and experiences all the rage a Black woman can feel when thinking about raising a Black child in America. This is a direct link to Anansi and Mami Wata as they represent survival, and refuse to be owned, so why would Aisha want that for herself and her child?  Because that is all migrating to America as an undocumented immigrant is going to consist of. 

The director also uses Aisha’s fear of the unknown and rage to set the tone of the film. As a director, she understands the horror genre and how to use subtlety, mystery, and color to create atmospheric tension. From the moment the credits begin, there is something not quite right with the world we’re about to step into. It’s an ideal method of audience engagement that will keep viewers on the edge of their seat throughout. There’s also some Ousmane Sembène cinematic influence. His film Black Girl provides a blueprint for stories like this. 

This is aided by Diop’s quiet and moving performance which is a stark contrast to her work on HBO Max/DC comics live action Titans series. She performs with a sense of sincerity, and the audience can see every time the character experiences a change in emotion or feeling. It helps that she’s well lit, so we can see her facial expressions and connect to Aisha’s plight. I say that because too often actors of her skin tone are victims of poor lighting in film. 

Nanny juggles a lot of concepts. Past, present, future, language, culture and horror together in a story about what happens when you don’t heed warnings. While it doesn’t address everything in a seamless way, the message is loud and clear. Jusu has a style that is unique, and her debut film shows the director has a promising future in Hollywood and the horror genre. 

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