DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Nanny.
What happens when you must confront internal and external monsters? Filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu (Suicide by Sunlight) fuses African folklore, horror and thriller elements to create Nanny, her feature-length directorial debut premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Anna Diop stars as Senegalese immigrant Aisha, a nanny for a wealthy couple in New York City, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). Aisha hopes to save enough money so that her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), can move to America.
However, Aisha finds herself swept up in the venomous tumult of Amy and Adam’s crumbling marriage. While battling those marital (external) monsters, Aisha encounters supernatural forces (internal) threatening to upend her “American Dream.”
Nanny‘s eye-catching color palette plays a pivotal role in conveying its story. Jusu infuses dark blues, yellows and greens to showcase the supernatural entities’ influence on Aisha. We see the methodical use of these colors as Nanny artfully builds tension till it climaxes.
One scene brings a bevy of colors into the fold, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Masque of the Red Death with the placement of said colors.
Rina Yang‘s cinematography gorgeously captures the essence of Nanny, from the subdued, reflective blues to the vibrant, peaceful yellows.
Jusu brings two figures of African folklore to life: Mami Wata and Anansi. She utilizes them to tell Aisha’s story of perseverance and resistance as a Black woman and the tale of all marginalized people trying to survive in a white, colonialist world.
Diop delivers a tour de force performance, brimming with vulnerability, strength and heart. Nanny wastes no time endearing us to her. It’s abundantly clear that Jusu crafted Nanny as a love letter to immigrant mothers everywhere — the heartache, sweat and tears that go into caring for children that aren’t your own.
Monaghan’s portrayal of the self-centered, privileged Amy who commits microaggression after microaggression against Aisha might be uncomfortable for some folks to watch, but it’s necessary. Instead of learning to see Aisha’s perspective, Amy stays enmeshed in her miserable, narrow-minded world.
Aisha makes herself small to fit into a space that doesn’t welcome her with open arms. She must suppress parts of her most authentic self to appease her employers. For example, Amy insists Aisha refrain from feeding her daughter Rose (Rose Decker) anything “spicy” or “hot” for fear it might “upset her tummy.”
However, Rose likes Aisha’s Senegalese dishes, so she cooks them for the little girl.
Nanny showcases the various microaggressions Aisha faces, from Amy’s remarks about the food to comments regarding Aisha’s skin. The film pulls back the curtain on the all-too-real pay disparities for Black women and people of color as Aisha tries to get Amy and Adam to pay her what she’s rightfully owed.
Unfortunately, the couple dismisses her genuine concerns, even after Aisha reveals she’s trying to bring her son to America.
Besides racism and white privilege, the film also brilliantly addresses police brutality and the lack of mental health resources for Black people.
Jusu illustrates Nanny‘s horror and thriller elements through sequences without dialogue. Colors, specific shots and sounds — every tool in the filmmaking arsenal — create an immersive world, encouraging audiences to engage all their senses.
Solid performances, ethereal visuals and powerful themes depicted via folklore propel Nanny‘s narrative forward, but it loses steam in the final few minutes. The film simply … ends. Perhaps this is intentional on Jusu’s part. While the movie resolves, albeit a bit clumsily, maybe we, as the audience, are meant to sit with that ending. Hold it close; contemplate the themes explored therein.
Overall, Nanny crafts a richly compelling, introspective tale asking us to examine our inner monsters and redefine the “American Dream” and how it puts people of color at a disadvantage. It makes us think about how, if the privileged cannot recognize their privilege and make space for marginalized voices, the marginalized will sink to the bottom of the sea.
Anna Diop shines, churning out a profoundly resonant, beautiful performance about a woman driven by love, an emotion to which we can all relate.
Nanny is entertaining, thoughtful, creative and visually stimulating despite the slightly confusing ending.
Sundance Film Festival runs until January 30. For more information regarding the online festival schedule, go here.