Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Us’ Anna Diop) arrives in New York City willing to work hard to achieve her dreams—chief among them making enough money to reunite with her beloved son, who she had to leave behind. But as we see in Nikyatu Jusu’s gorgeous yet chilling Nanny, unexpected malevolence awaits in both supernatural and all-too-human ways.
As the title suggests, Aisha lands a coveted gig caring for Rose (Rose Decker), the young daughter of affluent Manhattanites Amy (The Craft: Legacy’s Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). “Jobs like this don’t fall from the sky,” a friend warns her, and we see that Aisha is willing to put up with the bullshit that begins to seep in as time goes on, at least until the couple falls behind on paying her the salary (including copious overtime) that she’s desperately counting on. At that point, Amy’s control-freak tendencies and Adam’s boundary-pushing—and their fondness for using Aisha as a go-between in their obviously strained marriage—become almost too much to take.
Thankfully, despite her toxic parents, Rose is a playful kid who quickly warms to Aisha—even preferring Aisha’s spicy Senegalese food to the bland meals Amy parcels out for her to eat. Another bright spot comes in the form of Malik (Sinqua Walls), a genuinely nice single dad Aisha begins dating after some nervous hesitation, and who comes with a bonus: a grandmother (Deadpool’s Leslie Uggams) with intuitive powers that prove valuable when Aisha’s world begins to crumble.
Job stress is a significant part of what causes Aisha’s mental strain, but an even bigger culprit is the torment she feels over her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara). She’d intended to move him to America in time to celebrate his seventh birthday, and the boy’s annoyance with her stalling—necessary due to her financial situation—is almost as frustrating as how difficult it is to actually get in touch with him: dropped calls and missed calls abound, as do worrisome periods of Aisha’s cousin, who’s been taking care of Lamine, simply being unreachable.
We learn just a little bit about Aisha’s backstory—back in Senegal, she was a teacher, which makes perfect sense when you see how patient she is with Rose; also, Lamine’s father was a married man who cut her off when she got pregnant, which explains Aisha’s initial reluctance to get involved with Malik. But we don’t need to know more, since Aisha’s character is filled in perfectly by Diop’s nuanced, emotionally layered performance. She’s resilient, she’s hopeful, she’s glad she left Senegal—but she also feels deep regrets and searing guilt over being away from Lamine, who she calls her “greatest work,” for so long.
As Nanny’s sinister music and ominous lighting signal from the start, more horrific elements are imminent—things that go far beyond Amy’s “forgetting” what she owes Aisha for overnight babysitting, or the all-seeing nanny-cams that flash from strategic nooks around the couple’s posh apartment. Aisha’s anguish over leaving Lamine begins to manifest in nightmares and visions that writer-director Jusu ties into West African folklore, drawing in figures like the mermaid Mami Wata and the trickster Anansi.
It becomes so distressing that Aisha turns to Malik’s grandmother, who reminds her that “Mami Wata and Anansi are figures of survival and resistance for oppressed people… they challenge the dominant order, subverting it through chaos, anarchy, subversive energy.” So, though they’re scary, these aren’t necessarily bad visions. But the older woman also passes along a gentle but firm warning, noting that it’s not always about what the spirits want from you, it’s what they want for you—and their intentions aren’t always kind, something she had to learn the hard way from her own family trauma. Though there’s a danger of leaning too hard into metaphor here, Nanny is so deftly crafted and beautifully performed it never feels heavy-handed. Like the excellent His House before it—a film about South Sudanese refugees who realize their new home in England is haunted by the terrors they left behind—Nanny chillingly illustrates just how well the immigrant experience can dovetail with horror themes, and how even the most optimistic pursuit of a brighter future can sometimes mean paying a dark price.
Nanny hits theaters today, and then arrives on Prime Video December 16.
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