As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Nikyatu Jusu’s feature film debut, ‘Nanny,’ starring Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
No matter how hard she hustles, money is always tight for Aisha (Anna Diop). Between the New York City rental squeeze and sending cash home to her family in Senegal, the proverbial coin purse is always lighter than it needs to be. But things are looking up: Aisha has a new gig that will not only cover her bases but allow the recent émigré to bring her young son, Lamine, to America before his upcoming birthday.
And so, after a successful job interview, Aisha is hired to care for Rose (Rose Decker), the young daughter of an affluent white couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). As the days tick by, Aisha can’t help but notice the cracks in the family’s seemingly perfect facade. Forgetful and inconsiderate, micro-managing Amy is seemingly exempt from the perfection she demands of others. Little Rose can barely tie her own shoelaces, but she does have her own therapist. Meanwhile, Adam is a cheater and a financial parasite, a good-for-nothing who exercises a disproportionate amount of control over the family he barely sees.
In the beginning, Aisha is able to turn a blind eye to the family’s acrid home life. After all: the improved cash flow means that she’ll be able to see her son again. But then Amy misses a payday. And then another. And another. She’s worked overnights and overtime but hasn’t seen a cent. Soon, Aisha’s patience and sanity begin to fray. Inundated with watery dreams and waking nightmares, Aisha entreats her new boyfriend’s witchy grandma (Leslie Uggams) for advice: is she hallucinating because she’s drowning in work… or is something more supernatural at play?
As Aisha, Diop easily steals the show, endowing the young mother with a depth of feeling that allows her to be vulnerable without coming across as a victim. Spector also deserves praise for his believably sinister turn as Adam, a modern slimeball if ever there was one. No spoilers, but one scene sees him instrumental in causing viewers’ strongest reaction to the film (audible gasps, tuts, “NOOO”). Caroline B. Scott’s set design also deserves a shout-out. The wealthy family’s apartment features some attentive details that wordlessly speak to a pointed and recognizable kind of Western wealth (the multiple SodaStreams is an inspired touch).
While the film suffers from pacing issues despite its respectable 98-minute runtime, Nanny deserves props for teasing tension out of the specificity of its social horror. For all the novel supernatural wrinkles it brings to the table, the scariest scenes in Nanny are easily the ones in which Aisha is attempting to navigate the choppy seas of her volatile employer’s family life. Being a fly on the wall, alongside Aisha, steadily mapping out the minefield of this horrible couple is as fascinating as it is nightmarish.
As a horror/drama, Nanny is at its best when it leans into Adam and Amy’s racially-charged microaggressions toward Aisha. Adam’s work as a photographer focuses on capturing images of suffering Black bodies overseas, an exploitative red flag both we and Aisha wordlessly clock from the get-go. Amy’s own dehumanizing “compliments” toward Aisha’s skin also raise hackles. But it’s the couple’s slow, steady, and painfully plausible admission that they see Aisha as a service, not a person, that hits hardest. They don’t pay her for her labor because that would require them to validate Aisha’s wants, needs, and drive. And that’s not even on their radar, let alone something they’re actively dismissing.
The way Nanny aligns the objectification of immigrant labor with the steady creep of thriller tropes is commendable. And it’s unfortunate that the film’s supernatural elements don’t hit nearly as hard. Aisha’s visions feel more like scenes from another, worse film than an integrated thematic element. As a result, Nanny’s final gut punch doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it should. And the film seems to know it, too: rushing at a breakneck pace from a horrific tragedy to a happily ever after so fast it’ll give you whiplash.
We’re in something of a pop-culture moment where a bunch of racist dummies are furious that Disney has the gall to cast a Black woman as a mermaid. While its supernatural ingredients don’t entirely gel with its more grounded social horror, Nanny’s fresh take on magical realism is exactly that. West African folklore (namely: Mami Wata and Anansi) being integrated into an Amazon Studios and Blumhouse production feels like a kickass counterpoint to the racist pearl-clutching taking place in the ickier corners of the internet.
While the dramatic elements of Nanny work a lot better than the genre ones, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu has delivered a promise-filled debut feature that, for its admitted flaws, makes her a new voice in horror well-worth keeping an eye on.
Nanny is playing in select theaters in the United States on November 23, 2022. It will premiere on Prime Video on December 16. You can watch the trailer here.
Related Topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)