Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Writer: Nikyatu Jusu
Stars: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls
Synopsis: A Senegalese immigrant takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple. As she prepares for her young son to join her in the states, she becomes the target of a mysterious and violent presence.
A lush warm-colored small apartment is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Nanny as an elated Aisha (Anna Diop) gets ready for her first day of work at a wealthy couple’s home in Manhattan. The couple, Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector), need a nanny for their young daughter Rose (Rose Decker). Aisha, who worked as a teacher back in Senegal, resorted to domestic work to scrape together enough money to get her young son to join her in America. Separated by thousands of miles and only able to see her son on a phone screen, Aisha is determined to get her son to the U.S. in time for his next birthday.
At first, her goal seems attainable, but with time comes constant late payments, endless schedule changes, and more and more overtime hours which all put a wrench in Aisha’s plans. It also becomes clear that Aisha was wedged right in the middle of a deteriorating marriage in which both sides are mostly absent and constantly play the blame game. Aisha’s life outside work becomes more unstable, and odd visions start to haunt her dreams and reality.
After several shorts, Nanny marks director’s Nikyatu Jusu feature debut. And it is one of the most exciting debuts in recent memory. The film was also the first horror film to win the U.S. Grand Jury Prize Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance film festival, with writer-director Nikyatu Jusu becoming just the second Black female filmmaker to claim the award. Jusu, who works as an assistant professor at George Mason University, has been developing the script for eight years and finally got the green light to shoot the film in 2021. Jusu chose the horror genre to tell this story because, according to her, “The American dream is a horror story for so many people.”
The cost of the American dream is a story many filmmakers tried to take on in the last few years. With some filmmakers’ ability to deliver more favorable results than others, the Hollywood machine was content pumping out copies of the same story, slightly changed, and barely dressed up in different costumes to deceive the audience that they didn’t see this story before. So from the start, Jusu faced an uphill battle to present a new perspective on the subject matter that isn’t derivative and to imbue her film with the real struggle that African immigrant women face daily in the U.S.
Jusu’s sharp screenplay and commanding direction gave Nanny a genuinely interesting dramatic tension with a delicate infusion of horror that elevated the film beyond the clichés of the genre. The writer-director also made the most of what the cinematic form can offer with standout utilization of lighting and cinematography that informs and enhances the visual storytelling of the film. The level of craft and ingenuity on display here is truly impressive.
The layered characters of Jusu’s screenplay give the performers a lot of room to play with, which provides their performances with a lot of depth and allows the viewers to recognize aspects of themselves in more than one character of the film. The actors that brought these characters to life are good across the board, especially; Michelle Monaghan as Amy, whose role could have easily been a big misstep for the film, but she brought so much complexity to a character with such small screen time. And there is no Nanny without the magnificent performance from Anna Diop, whose portrayal of Aisha earned her the Chicago international film festival rising star award. Diop’s performance is central to the film, and she; manages to navigate Aisha’s motherly guilt and determination with flawless precision.
Myth and spirits manage to find their way into the film as Aisha’s life gets out of hand; her visions get longer as they get darker, and spirits start to haunt her until she can’t tell dreams from reality. Jusu incorporates horror elements with a meticulous hand to reflect Aisha’s emotions throughout the film. Between rage and dread, there is always a feeling that something is lurking beneath the surface in Aisha’s eyes that is slowly suffocating and poisoning her mind. Eventually, Aisha’s deep suppressed guilt floats to the surface and starts eating away at her until it becomes more than she can handle.
Nanny probably put more on its plate than it could handle, but throughout the film, Jusu’s directorial hand guided the viewer’s focus and did surprisingly well in what she set it out to do. However, the ending of the film lost that anchor in an attempt to wrap everything up in a small amount of time that came away as hasty and rushed; when the film could’ve used an extra ten minutes to let both the characters and the viewers process the climax of the film.
Nikyatu Jusu’s depiction of the many ways of exploitation of immigrant domestic workers, the poisonous effects of capitalism, and the American dream set in a story about a mother’s love and guilt is truly an amazing foot to achieve in your feature debut, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.