Nanny begins with Aisha (Anna Diop) asleep. Shadows, undulations, and a spreading dampness affect her bedclothes, while a spider makes an entrance just as Aisha wakes with a start. It’s as though a tiny aperture has opened between our heroine’s nightmares and waking life, and will remain open for most of what follows, repeatedly terrifying Aisha while mostly just confusing the rest of us.
A Senegalese woman living in New York, Aisha finds what appears to be a plum gig looking after Rose (Rose Decker), the 5-year-old only child of a wealthy couple residing in a vast apartment on the Upper East Side. From the moment she begins her first day’s orientation, however, it’s clear that Aisha will have to, at the very least, endure a stifling environment. Amy (Michelle Monaghan), the mom, furnishes Aisha with a binder full of guidelines and emergency-contact information, including the number for Rose’s therapist. All polished edges and barely repressed nerves, Amy seems carved from marble, a contender for the title of whitest rich white lady: neurotic, micromanaging, virtue-signaling, fundamentally self-absorbed. Adam (Morgan Spector), meanwhile, is the adventure dad who makes a belated entrance due to his frequent trips abroad as a photojournalist, a white man making a fortune from spectacular images of Black tragedy.
Things go from tense to nearly untenable. Aisha has an uneasy episode with Rose in a local park, and word gets around. Amy keeps asking Aisha for overnights, but doesn’t seem eager to pay her what she’s owed. Adam swoops in to play the more responsible employer, yet he doesn’t waste a moment in taking advantage of his position, knowing not only that he holds influence over Aisha’s precarious legal status but also that she is desperate to accumulate funds as quickly as possible: she, too, is a parent, with a young son back home whom she hopes to bring to New York in time for his looming birthday. The sole bright spot in her current situation is a budding romance with Malik (Sinqua Walls), the doorman for Amy and Adam’s building, whose relaxed charisma allows Aisha to let her guard down.
Were it to focus its energies on cultivating the eeriest aspects of Aisha’s experience as an undocumented Black woman—longing to be reunited with her child, objectified, scrutinized, and manipulated while moving through predominantly white, affluent spaces—Sierra Leonean–American writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut could already almost be a horror movie. The ubiquity of surveillance cameras, the air of paranoia and potential gaslighting, and the compositions that emphasize the antiseptic expansiveness of Amy and Adam’s apartment are all creepy as it is, while the invocation of mythical African figures such as Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata, along with a certain chiaroscuro swimming-pool sequence, hint at a possible homage to Jacques Tourneur’s canonical Cat People.
There is, in any case, enough potent material in Nanny to make it a vital story of displacement—one beautifully supported by Diop’s performance, which brims with conflicted feelings underscored by a ferocious tenacity. Unfortunately, that story has been inexplicably grafted to a trope-heavy genre workout that ultimately seems disconnected from most of what’s actually interesting in the film: that opening sleeping scene is followed by intermittent floods of creepy-crawly, dark and soggy, super-ominous hallucinations or dream images, which escalate as they accumulate and quickly come to feel superfluous. Such a glut of portent takes all the air out of Nanny’s big, belabored reveal, which arrives in a way that feels somewhat nonsensical, and which you needn’t be a screenwriting scholar to see coming far in advance. This disclosure is followed by a very last-minute, tacked-on hint of hopefulness. But what we really hope for is a second feature from Jusu—one that, whether horror or not, makes good on the promise of Nanny’s strengths.
The English title of Christian Tafdrup’s third feature initially reads as a strategy to draw horror fans, a pleading form of genre assurance that the film’s anodyne original Danish title, Gæsterne, or The Guests, cannot offer.
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