When Jason Blum’s Blumhouse, a notable horror production house, isn’t busy backing up terrible sequels, they tend to champion some great filmmakers who are just finding their feet.
Their latest offering is Nanny, directed by Nikyatu Jusu. Part immigration drama, part ghost story, Nanny is arresting and vivid, both narratively and visually. Nanny first charmed audiences at Sundance Film Festival in January 2022 and it won the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who accepts a well-paying job nannying the young daughter of a wealthy New York family. Amy (Michelle Monaghan) is an overworked mother to Rose while her husband Adam (Morgan Spector) is aloof and distant.
Aisha’s job is to care for Rose, feed her healthy food Amy has picked out and teach her French. Aisha sends her wages to Senegal to pay for a ticket for her son Lamine to come to America, but unknown forces begin to threaten her American dream.
Nanny isn’t a straight-forward horror film, but it infuses its narrative with spooky imagery. Jusu weaves a sense of unease and dread throughout her film; there are references to both Anansi and Mami Wata, powerful legends in African culture.
Jusu’s film is thematically rich, but never talks down to you. The story is compelling and the characters are all likeable, or at the very least, recognisable. Monaghan paints a believable portrait of a career woman trying to balance a family life and her work and mostly failing gloriously.
But the star of the show is Diop. Her performance alternates between gentle and fierce and she brings all her character’s emotions to the foreground with devotion and an admirable openness.
Jusu, who also wrote the screenplay, demonstrates a great eye for both visuals and performances. She’s able to draw out credible, nuanced performances out of her cast while also meaningfully exploring complex themes.
Unfortunately, some characters never properly developed; Adam remains a bit of a mystery. We’re never let in on what caused Amy and Adam’s marriage to grow so sour, but Aisha’s budding romance with Malik, a doorman, is sweet and tender.
While there’s no twist to Nanny, the narrative does move to a frustratingly predictable direction. The supernatural elements, while effective, aren’t always fully realised. Water becomes a fascinating element in Jusu’s film; it’s calming but also dangerous. Under water, you might be drowned or perhaps purified.
Jusu also explores motherhood and gender in her debut feature, but the most impressive element of Nanny is her treatment of Aisha. Although Aisha encounters microaggressions and is continuously underpaid by Amy, Jusu never paints her as a victim.
By combining striking visuals, a strong sense of unease and a brilliant performance from her leading lady, Jusu has crafted one of the strongest debuts in recent memory. Nanny is a powerful, supernatural tale of motherhood, spirits and the many shades of the American dream.
Nanny is in select cinemas November 25 and on Prime Video December 16.