“Nanny” is that rare sophisticated and cosmopolitan horror movie, a tale with chills and cross-cultural issues far beyond your usual nut-with-a-knife or demons menacing the kids in a cabin in the woods.
Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, an award winner at Sundance, is about a young single mother struggling to earn enough money in New York to send for her little boy back in Senegal. The separation is messing with her head, and adding African superstitions and fears onto the guilt she feels for going a year without seeing her boy in the flesh isn’t helping.
It’s a dreamy, spooky film that is sparing with its overt frights as it as much concerned with our heroine’s real world problems as it is her supernatural worries.
Aisha, played with fear and fire by Anna Diop (“Us,” TV’s “Titans”) is a regal beauty from Dakar just starting a new job. She’ll be taking care of an upper-middle class white family’s five year-old girl. Both parents (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) work, and keep a roomy, modern high-rise apartment with a spare bedroom for “overnights.”
Mother Amy is a hugger — warm, if a bit self-absorbed and careerist. Husband Adam is a photo-journalist who’s often away. They could really use the help. Aisha really needs the money. And they pay cash, which tells us volumes about the power dynamic in play here.
Aisha is an instant hit with their little girl (Rose Decker), a finicky eater who takes to West African cuisine that her new babysitter, caregiver and French tutor brings to work.
When Adam meets Aisha, he is friendly and impressed enough to say “I can tell you’re not going to be with us for very long.”
But Aisha is increasingly distracted at work. Her facetime chats with her boy are infrequent and frustrating. She starts to see him in her dreams and daytime hallucinations in the park, wakes up from nightmares or feels the tug of African demon mermaids, Mami Wata, trying to drown her in the pool where she takes Rose for swimtime.
She judges herself in the mirror, and worse, the independent image of her reflected back seems judgy, too.
Aisha struggles to keep it together. Maybe dating the handsome single-dad doorman (Sinqua Walls) will give her some relief. Or not. His mother (Lesley Uggams, enjoying a nice career renaissance) knows Africa and has “the sight.” She intuits much about Aisha and her state of mind, not all of which she shares.
A couple of quick observations of the Sierra Leoni filmmaker Jusu’s world-building for this film. Aisha is surrounded by overtly friendly New Yorkers. Amy lends Aisha a fancy dress so that Aisha can join a family cocktail party. Adam is complimentary and makes an effort to relate to Aisha as a woman of the world, with a ready grasp of the world she came from.
And doorman Malik to the very picture of charm and (New York) chivalry.
But Aisha is keenly aware of the power dynamics in play. Her employers are forgetful about paying her, and their marriage seems shaky. How demanding can she be? Malik has a steady job, but he’s as complicated and messy as the rest of us.
This world of affluence and off-the-tax-rolls cheap nannies gives her access to the finer things, and cash to send home to get a plane ticket for her boy. But as distracted as Aisha is and as flighty as they are, it could all go away.
No, the effects and frights aren’t the most original. But Jusu so grounds her film in this reality and so focusses our attentions on Aisha’s plight that the drama draws us in and forces us to be content with dread when the genre is knows for its jolts.
It’s no “Babadook” or “Mama,” but for a horror movie for people who won’t realize they’re watching a horror movie, it’s not bad.
Rating: R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity.
Cast: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector, Sinqua Walls and Lesley Uggams.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nikyatu Jusu. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:37