Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny is a tale of prolific sadness that challenges horror’s identity. His House and Ojuju run in more traditional genre circles as ungodly or zombified African-influenced chillers, while Nanny aligns more with horrific nonfiction. Jusu conjures a Senegalese immigrant’s experience, tempted by the siren’s call of American dreams only to find classism, status oppression and unwelcome glances. Whenever Nanny approaches moments where supernatural events might indulge frightening fantasies, Jusu pushes harder for tragic authenticity. For better or worse (viewer dependent), it doesn’t present as the average Blumhouse production.
Anna Diop stars as transplant Aisha, the hired nanny to an Upper East Side family struggling to maintain their lifestyle. Amy (Michelle Monaghan) enlists Aisha to care for her daughter Rose (Rose Decker) while her photojournalist husband Adam (Morgan Spector) is away shooting another conflict. Everything seems copasetic, Rose adores Aisha, but Adam’s return home causes tension amidst the altered apartment ecosystem. Aisha works day and night to raise money for her son Lamine’s (Jahleel Kamara) birthday flight to America, but Amy starts missing payments, and working conditions become increasingly uncomfortable. Another day in the life of an overworked and unprotected American immigrant, complete with visions of folklore that endanger Aisha’s position and health—I never said an “average” life.
Jusu works with soft and quiet assertions of the horror genre, although there’s not much to fear on spectral levels. That’s not the movie Nanny wants to be. Diop portrays a character drowning in maternal remorse as she cares for another’s neglected child while fighting the guilt of “neglecting” her own son, still living abroad. Monaghan and Spector aren’t playing exaggerated demons—they’re flawed New Yorker stereotypes trying to juggle professions, marital spats and what they believe are Rose’s best interests. The comparing and contrasting that takes place between Aisha and Amy becomes tumultuous when Amy enforces a dehumanizing employer-client boundary. Nanny doesn’t require a grotesque Clive Barkerian imagination—life is terrifying enough for outsiders.
When Jusu dips her toe into subtle-to-freaky horror imagery, she proves herself in command. Should Jusu ever decide to helm a straightforward Blumhouse fright flick—maybe a sequel to the newly announced Arachnophobia remake, as a tease slash warning—the announcement would be met with total confidence. Aisha’s romantic entanglement with doorman Malik (Sinqua Walls) introduces his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) and, with it, cryptic explanations of Anansi the spider god and the water spirit Mami Wata: “They challenge the dominant order…they refuse to be ruled.” Chaos stems from Aisha’s evolution from submissive to confrontational, aided by nightmare-fueled inserts of itsy-bitsy spiders crawling over flesh, mermaids in chlorinated swimming pools and snakes slithering under bed sheets. There’s no extravagance outside of the fishlike, scaly tail propelling said mermaid. Nothing distracts from the haunting feeling that penetrates Aisha’s behavior the less she hears from her dearest Lamine.
There’s so much talent in front of and behind the camera, working in unison. Rina Yang’s cinematography makes Rose’s apartment feel massive when Aisha anxiously darts room to room, seeking the sneaky child in hiding—but pulls close on Aisha when Jusu wants us to feel the proverbial walls crashing inward. Diop dazzles as psychological duress boils, starting as the loved-by-all nanny and eventually regaining consciousness clutching a knife, with no recollection of why. You’ve seen maternal breakdowns like in Nanny, but Jusu honors African roots tangled around motherhood expectations from an immigrant’s (and Black American’s) exceptionally undervalued perspective. There’s décor that recalls the Candyman remake’s enraged artwork, but also heavily grounded conversational altercations between modern lords and servants that cause us to wriggle in discomfort. It’s all stuck in middle gear, but that’s usually alright, given Jusu’s proficiency and commitment to approaching horror through society’s clearest lens.
Nanny seeps into your pores, stings like salt in a throbbing wound and doesn’t require what some horror fans might—conversely—wish appeared. Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut is a noteworthy victory in terms of dreary tones, simmering tension and emotional brevity. Its horror accents don’t lunge from shadows or squeal at high pitches. Nanny exists as a sobering exploration of the American Dream gone disgustingly sour, like 2017’s Most Beautiful Island, another New York City reinterpretation of melting-pot alarmism. Patience is a virtue here, as long as audiences holster their Blumhouse expectations and allow Jusu to express herself.
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Writer: Nikyatu Jusu
Starring: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.