The best horror films often give us a lead to root for; someone that offers us a window into the pain and spooks. Nanny accomplishes this with a compelling and trippy story that employs subtlety to reach the audience. Add in a nice visual flair and you’re in business.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is an immigrant in New York who is trying to save money so she can afford for her son to come live with her in the states. She takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy white couple named Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector respectively) and is in charge of watching after their daughter Rose (Rose Decker). At first things are going swimmingly. Rose is a well-mannered girl that begins to develop better habits under Aisha’s watchful care because of the hours on end that they spend together. Adam travels while being unfaithful and Amy keeps long hours at an office and when they are home, they host friends who discuss anti-racism protests with disdain. There’s the expected awkwardness as Aisha watches on, waiting on them hand and foot and as she works tirelessly, the movie asks if things have really changed in the last couple hundred years.
To say Diop carries the role with grace is an understatement. The couple make excuses for why they can’t pay her despite living in a penthouse with a private elevator and payment is used to suggest physical favors. Amy is often aggressive and feels ready to fight to deflect her own shortcomings. Aisha endures all of it while talking to her son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) on the phone and she begins having visions of water and strange creatures. The visuals are impressive; much of the more impressive shots taking place in the spacious penthouse with it’s large walls and varying shades of lights. Aisha also begins to connect with the building’s concierge Malik (Sinqua Walls) and the pair develop an honest relationship.
Writer/director Nikyatu Jusu knows how to keep her characters natural and when a sexual attraction builds, we can genuinely belive it. Aisha often is plagued by visions and nightmares while trying to keep pushing forward. Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) steals the show at times as she gives Aisha theories about her scary visions as well as bits of vague advice.
I’ll admit, as pretty as it is, there are some scenes where I wish Jusu would embrace the intensity that horror is capable of. The subtlety is great for character development, but I suspect some viewers will agree that the story doesn’t always rise to meet the performances. There are many fine moments revolving around motherhood and we feel for Aisha even if the nightmare she’s trapped in could use a little more punch. The film employs a mythology and spiritualism without tapping too deeply into it. Still, when it does tap we get fun scenes, one that can be drawn from a children’s book and others that can encourage some viewers to research different cultures.
All in all, this film turns out to be a mixed bag but where it shines, it is bright. The shots composed by Rina Yang will be a highlight for viewers and many will feel the pain of Aisha’s story as she focuses on someone else’s child rather than her own. It took guts to make such a subtle film and it still deserves a little clap for what it does right. Jusu is a first-time director with plenty of promise.
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