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‘Nanny’ review: A spellbinding debut from director Nikyatu Jusu

By November 29, 2022No Comments4 min read

Poised and simmering with masked rage, director and writer Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny is quietly explosive. A contemplative, genre-bending tale of longing, grief, and the feeling of displacement, Jusu’s debut feature film is harrowing and gorgeously told, with a contained, tightly written narrative. 

Anna Diop stars as a Senegalese immigrant who has been trying to bring her young son to the United States. With her new job as a nanny, she hopes the money she makes will accelerate the process. However, with the new job and so many nights spent in another’s home, she begins to envision a violent presence that haunts both her dreams and waking moments, as this unmovable force tries to strip away all she’s fought for.

Utilizing supernatural effects and framing for the sake of deepening an already potent nightmare, Nanny, pardon the cliche, threads the needle of using fantasy for the sake of telling a greater, human story. Especially as the human at its center must fight very real monsters in human form.

“The spirits are trying to warn you.” 

Jusu delivers a taut tale about what it means to be constantly swimming against the tide of life. Diop’s Aisha is assertive yet collected, only ever succumbing to her more strenuous emotions when there’s a sense of urgency, such as moments when she paces the lavish apartment she works in, looking for the little girl she’s meant to watch who takes it upon herself to hide from Aisha. A tragic heroine, but she refuses to be painted as a victim. The characters’ plight throughout the film, her inner turmoil is manifested in shadows that loom too close, rushes of ethereal water, and seemingly otherworldly appearances of things known from folklore.

The script cleverly avoids allowing supernatural threats to take up too much horror space in the film. The greatest moments of pain and agitation are grounded in the real people Aisha encounters, namely her employers, whose unhappy marriage starts to affect her livelihood. With a lack of communication and petty grievances tossed at one another, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector) are vigorously self-centered, and Aisha must bear the fallout of their inability to see beyond their own needs or recognize Aisha as a woman of autonomy whose life doesn’t end and begin when in their apartment. 

Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video © 2022 MOUTH OF A SHARK, LLC.

“Do not ignore the signs.”

The film is packed with microaggressions. Moments like when Amy tries to appeal to Aisha’s empathy by talking about the struggles of being a successful working woman. Yet she’s blissfully ignorant of how her whiteness corrodes this platitude in Aisha’s eyes. It’s nauseating, to say the least.

With references to figures of African folklore such as Anansi the spider and Mama Watu, a water spirit, the fantastical elevates the story and makes Aisha’s conflicts more immediate. The film’s moments of compromise, of delaying the arrival of her son, and dreamlike, feverish spells of grief hooks its hands around us. 

Water plays such a strong, purposeful role in Nanny and it’s fitting since so much of the film emulates the fear of slowly being pulled away from shore, wading just enough to take gasps of air before plunging under again. Aisha is strong and resilient, and Jusu’s script points this out through the supernatural occurrences that she shouldn’t have to experience. 

“I wish I knew what’s happening to me.”

Lush and bathed in rich colors, the cinematography by Rina Yang is one of the strongest elements of the feature, helping to elevate the source material and grant it a feverish atmosphere. Further aided by a tremendous score by Tanerélle and Bartek Gliniak, the overall quality and mood of the film, the oppressive sense of dread that lingers, even in moments of levity or romance, and compounds the underlying themes of the story. 

Diop is an absolute force of nature here, creating singular and distinct relationships with all of the key figures in her life. She breathes stoic isolation in her character, even when sharing the screen with others. This is a woman forever holding her breath, living between two heartbeats as she waits for the moment her son can come home. It’s a tremendous and graceful performance, powerful in its intermittent silence and heartbreaking when her glass spills. 

With Nanny, Jusu announces herself as a fully-formed talent, a filmmaker ready to break format and deliver stories that are necessary and hypnotic. Engaging, visually complex, and written with endless empathy for its leading lady whose voice continues demand attention, Jusu is one of the year’s most exciting new visionaries. 

Nanny is out in limited theaters now and will be available to stream through Amazon Prime on December 16, 2022. Watch the trailer below.

Featured Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

  • NANNY - 8.5/10
Allyson Johnson

Based in New England, Allyson is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of InBetweenDrafts. Former Editor-in-Chief at TheYoungFolks, she is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Her writing has also appeared at CambridgeDay, ThePlaylist, Pajiba, VagueVisages, RogerEbert, TheBostonGlobe, Inverse, Bustle, her Substack, and every scrap of paper within her reach.

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