Horror comes in many shapes and sizes, is personal in nature, and is traumatic, to say the least. Trauma is a mischaracterized aspect of horror, given the individual reaction to an event or a series of events, and is a part of what first-time director Nikyatu Jusu explores in her film, “Nanny,” now in select theaters and on Prime Video starting December 16.
Anna Diop plays Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant living precarious life in New York City. For her, the horror is in leaving her seven-year-old son behind while she forges a better life for him to come to. Jusu centers Aisha’s journey on the efforts to earn enough money to bring him over for his birthday. To make ends meet, Aisha, a part of the fabric of the Senegalese population in New York City, is a nanny for Michelle Monaghan‘s Amy and Morgan Spector’s Adam, taking care of their daughter, Rose (Rose Decker).
When we first meet the fast-paced Amy, we don’t exactly know what her angle is. Jittery at best and distracting at worst, Monaghan’s performance looks pretty stilted next to Aisha’s calmness. Rose, who we’re meant to think of as a special needs child, is actually a typical child in this day and age, which is to say she’s picky and is allergic to many of the scents and foods we struggle with today. Jusu forms a very human bond between the nanny and her charge, nearly a motherly bond.
Aisha’s absolute horror comes from dreams of her son, Lamine, who she video chats with throughout the story. Jusu interweaves the horrors of those dreams with the real-world consequences of working under the table because Aisha is undocumented. There are questionable elements to this aspect of the story, but they are also understandable. Spector’s Adam, who is MIA at first, finally shows up. His story is a bit of a mystery; however, his attitude is far more friendly toward Aisha than Amy’s.
Diop is the true gem in this horror, which pulls a bit of mystique from Kubrick’s “The Shining,” namely the mythology and culture rooted deep within Diop and Aisha. Adding to the mythology is Aisha’s relationship with Malik (Sinqua Walls). Through this relationship, Jusu explores what makes Aisha tick. Within that, cinematographer Rina Yang captures the gorgeous essence of the actress through tight shots of the actress’ eyes and facial expressions.
Where “Nanny” succeeds in character, it falters in its throughline. One would be forgiven for wanting more out of the 98-minute run time as layers and stimuli are thrown at Aisha that don’t pay off. It does keep the audience off its game, which is ideal in a horror film, but it doesn’t work here. Supporting Jusu’s character development for Aisha, the external traumas and stimuli don’t add to the overall experience. Far more impressive is the attachment and receptiveness between Aisha and Rose. Jusu’s choice of Tanerélle and Bartek Gliniak for the film’s score creates an unexpected ambiance, adding layers to Diop’s performance and Aisha as a character.
“Nanny” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is easy to see why a bidding war erupted for it, based solely on Anna Diop’s performance. Although intimately horrific, the remainder of the story plays too many tricks to get the traumatic aspects to work.