'Nanny': An Evocative, Visually Stunning Horror Film
One thing I love about horror films is that their antagonists can come in many different forms. The villain can be a monster, a homicidal maniac, a supernatural being, or any number of other possible evils. But with Nanny, the feature debut from filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu, the horror comes from a more psychological place. The film details a young woman named Aisha (played by Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant who works as a nanny for an upper class family in New York City. She dreams of bringing her son, who still lives in Senegal, overseas to live with her, and she works tirelessly to make this a reality. Amidst all this, Aisha begins to experience strange visions that haunt her, and get in the way of all her hard work. The film offers up a nuanced take on the horrors of the immigrant experience, and deals with the complexities of motherhood, leaving one's homeland, and classism, and is a visually stunning film that is both unnerving and thought provoking.
The film is a slow burn for sure, as the narrative unfolds steadily over its runtime, and much of it is rooted in Aisha's everyday life. It's a rather methodical mode of storytelling, as the way Aisha's life is depicted is a bit naturalistic, which allows the unsettling visions she has to pop and stand out even more. Jusu blends the reality of being an immigrant with nightmarish visuals in a profound and distinct way. It's a bit disorienting, but that's clearly what Jusu is going for. It allows the viewer to connect with Aisha's perspective, and feel what she is feeling as she is experiencing what we see on screen. This is clearly a personal story for Jusu, and it is also so nice to see a film about being an immigrant that doesn't hit the same beats and cliches of most films on the subject. As a result, the film is so much more affecting, and the use of horror elements to show the difficulty of adjusting to life in a new place and trying to reconnect with your loved ones is so inspired.
Jusu's direction is so intriguing as it is rather subtle, yet it draws you in slowly and makes you think. On top of that, the imagery that she brings to life in the film is so well-crafted and visceral. Some of it is rather simple on paper, but in the context of the movie, it is quite shocking. I like that she doesn't take the easy way with much of the film, and opts to create something more challenging, and in the process, more rewarding. In a way, it does fall into the trend of being a horror film about trauma, but it at least offers a new perspective, and takes a different approach than most other films in that category. It feels wholly original, and you can feel just how much this story means to Jusu all throughout the film. I sincerely hope that she's able to make another film in the near future, as I am so intrigued by what else she has up her sleeve as a filmmaker.
Of course, one of the film's greatest assets is Anna Diop, who plays Aisha. Diop has been in the business for a while now, but this is the first performance I've seen of hers. She is phenomenal in this film, and brings such depth and dimension to the character. She truly gets the nuances of the role, and is completely dialed into what the film is asking of her. She is also so easy to connect with, as you feel for the character so much throughout the film, and you really want to see her succeed. Diop plays the anxieties and fear that her character experiences in a realistic way, and it emphasizes the film's moments of horror further. Diop brings some vulnerability to the role, which pays off in a major way in the film's third act. It's such an excellent performance, and has me excited to see how her career grows from this point.
While Diop is the MVP here, the film does have a great supporting cast. Michelle Monaghan gives one of the best performances of her career here as Amy, the mother of the family that Aisha nannies for. Monaghan isn't in that much of the film, but she gets a few good scenes that allow her to do some interesting work. She's playing against type somewhat, and I would like to see her play more roles that allow her to tap into the energy she brings here. Sinqua Walls is also great as Aisha's love interest, Malik. Walls is absolutely charming, and brings a bit of levity to the film. It helps that he has great chemistry with Diop, and the blossoming relationship is so sweet and heartwarming. Of course, the great Leslie Uggams turns in a solid performance as Malik's grandmother, Kathleen, who tries to help Aisha make sense of her visions. Uggams changes the temperature of the film when she shows up, and makes the most of her time on screen.
The film's imagery is what really sticks with me, as it is gorgeously shot, for one, but the recurring motifs that Jusu uses are so effective. The most prevalent of these is water, as there are a few underwater sequences throughout the film, and the sound of waves and rushing water appear in certain moments as well. The film also includes spiders at different points in the film, which adds to the unsettling nature that it is going for. These motifs connect to two figures of West African folklore, Mami Wata and Anansi. Mami Wata is a water spirit, while Anansi is a trickster that often takes the form of a spider. These two beings are integral to the film's plot, and are the source of Aisha's visions. Jusu and company use these two to provide chilling and striking visuals that will undoubtedly stick with me for a while.
Nanny isn't just an unsettling horror film, it is also a nuanced exploration of the immigrant experience, and specifically how it intersects with motherhood and class. It is an interesting mix of profound social drama and atmospheric horror that caught me a little off-guard, but ultimately ended up being an intriguing experience, as well as a solid debut feature for Nikyatu Jusu. It's a film that I want to watch again, as I feel like it will work even more for me on re-watch, but I must say that Nanny left a pretty big impression on me after this first watch. It's a bit strange and dizzying, but the themes are so rich, and the visuals are so excellent that it ends up being quite fulfilling, and one of the more interesting horror films of the year.