Producers: Nikkia Moulterie and Daniela Taplin Lundberg Director: Nikyatu Jusu Screenplay: Nikyatu Jusu Cast: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector, Sinqua Walls, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams, Olamide Candide-Johnson, Jahleel Kamara, Zephanie Idoko, Ebbe Bassey and Princess Adenike Distributor: Amazon Studios/Prime Video
The debut feature of Nikyatu Jusu, who has made a number of well-received short films as well as teaching at George Mason University, is many things—perhaps too many. But propelled by an extraordinary lead performance by Anna Diop, it’s engrossing if structurally somewhat rickety.
“Nanny” is, at its core, a portrait of an immigrant exploited by her employers. Aisha (Diop) has arrived from Senegal, and lives with her aunt (Ebbe Bassey). She takes a position as nanny for little Rose (Rose Decker), the daughter of Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), who have an elegant apartment in a high rise; she works in any unspecified but apparently lucrative office position, while he’s a photojournalist who specializes in covering socio-political unrest in various areas of the world. Aisha’s goal is to save enough money to bring her six-year old son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), whom she’s left in Africa in the care of her cousin Mariatou (Olamide Candide-Johnson), to America.
At first the job seems nearly perfect. Rose takes to her quickly, and both Amy and Adam are pleased with how she’s getting the child to overcome her reluctance to eat, and moving her along in her French lessons. But before long Amy starts to ask her to work overtime and stay overnight; worse, she proves erratic about paying her. Adam, meanwhile, is a bit too friendly—as well as unwilling to talk to his wife about paying Aisha—and Amy’s obvious suspicions about his womanizing, relayed when she asks the nanny to watch him, prove well-grounded when he goes too far in responding to Aisha’s thanks for helping with her back pay. Amy, moreover, is clearly rattled by her daughter’s increasing closeness to her nanny, especially a preference for Senegalese food, which she thinks too spicy for the girl.
Still Aisha soldiers on, well aware that, as he aunt has reminded her, nanny jobs like hers are hard to come by. And she’s bitterly conscious of the way she was treated by Lamine’s father, a wealthy man who got her pregnant young and then refused to support her or the boy. Only her work as a teacher allowed her to rear him and make it to the United States herself.
Under the circumstances it’s understandable that Aisha’s mood should grow darker, especially since her conversations with Lamine are becoming strained and it appears that she might be unable to keep her promise to get him to America in time for his birthday. But are the nightmares and hallucinations she begins to experience signs of deeper psychological issues, or perhaps of some supernatural force at work?
That possibility emerges when Aisha begins dating Malik (Sinqua Walls), the jovial security guard at the high rise, and a single dad himself. She meets his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), whose keen intuitive powers would mark her as a witch back in Africa. She reveals that Malik’s mother suffered from schizophrenia (could Aisha be as well?), but also suggests that Aisha’s increasingly terrifying visions, most involving water and sea creatures (as well as her increasing instability—including losing sight of Rose in the park after seeing a mysterious boy there, or an episode with a bathtub that recalls the mental deterioration of another nanny, the one played by Bette Davis in Seth Holt’s 1960 British thriller) might be attributed to spiritual forces at work back home. Rose even mutters some remarks about Senegalese myths that support the latter theory.
The addition of these psychological, cultural and religious elements to the more direct immigrant story increases the depth and weightiness of the whole, but also lends a degree of narrative clumsiness, since editor Robert Mead can’t integrate them as seamlessly as one might like. Nonetheless those are the elements that contribute the advertised element of horror to the proceedings, and they are given a mutedly creepy tone by Jusu, production designer Jonathan Guggenheim and cinematographer Rina Yang, as by the score by Tanerelle Bartek, which incorporates some Senegalese song. And a major reveal at the close does attempt to tie everything together.
The supporting cast is fine, with Monaghan, Walls and Spector adding touches to their thinly-written characters that help to raise them above stereotypical sketches. Decker is charmingly unaffected as Rose, and Uggams brings gravity to a role that might otherwise seem faintly comical. But it’s Diop who anchors the film with a turn that transcends any suggestion of mere horror, making Aisha an indelible portrait of hope, disappointment and finally anguish.
Thanks to her and Jusu, while uneven and at times unwieldy “Nanny” is worth watching.