‘Nanny’ Review: Nikyatu Jusu’s Devastating Debut Uncovers the Horrors of the American Dream


Of all the films that premiered back at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Nanny is the one that is both more ambitious in its poetic presentation and equally humble in its narrative aspirations. This is by no means a detriment as it is actually fundamental to what makes it stand out in the memory. The experience is built around dancing between different genres in order to tell a story that observes how the everyday indignities of life can lead to even more unexpected pain and tragedy. Telling the story of a nanny trying to raise money to bring her son to America, this feature debut from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu plays both as an emotional drama and an enduringly evocative horror. Though it works better in its individual moments, there is still something stunning about how it will frequently submerge us in a more subtle and sinister sense of looming dread that soon becomes emotionally shattering.

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This begins with Anna Diop‘s Aisha, who we first see when she is lying alone in a bed that becomes more like a life raft that is the only thing stopping her from drowning in the choppy waters that she must navigate. She has emigrated from Senegal to New York City for her chance at the ever out-of-reach American Dream that she soon hopes to share with a son that she had to leave behind. However, she is still not safe here as a spider begins to crawl across her face, becoming the first sign that something may be haunting her. When she awakens, she goes off to her new job working as a nanny for a wealthy couple who effectively expects her to raise their daughter Rose. The matriarch Amy (Michelle Monaghan) is largely absent from Rose’s life while the returning patriarch Adam (Morgan Spector) is no better as a traveling photographer and journalist who is almost certainly having at least one affair.

All of their dysfunction is something we see through Aisha’s eyes as a riveting yet understated Diop conveys the frustration the character has with her employers that she must keep to herself so as not to lose this job. It is an all-too-common situation that is built on the exploitation of immigrant labor where, most egregiously, they frequently fail to pay her for the work that she has done and that she needs to pay for her son’s travels. Amy tries to get away with this by pretending that they are good friends. This manipulative trap of a situation is one Aisha must navigate carefully while still advocating for herself as it is only the beginning of what will soon threaten to destroy the life she is working to build for herself and her son.

Image via Amazon Studios

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It begins gradually, but Aisha is being visited by forces that are not of this world. One night while staying over to assist the family, she is jolted awake in darkness by a scream that sounds like a distant echo before the spare bedroom begins to flood. While not real, it is one of the many ways water becomes a source of terror. She then begins to observe what seems to be the mermaid-like Mami Watu, a water spirit who first appears to her when she is down by a pier where she just watches her from a distance. Later, she will try to drag Aisha down into the depths of a pool. Though entrancing, she nearly drowns before suddenly coming back to consciousness with everyone watching her as she coughs up water. Only she is able to see the being, adding to the unshakable sense that she foretells doom for her and her alone.

These striking visual moments that Jusu creates of terror are mesmerizing, like a spell is being cast that is beyond comprehension no matter how much Aisha tries to piece together what it could mean. This is then juxtaposed with the more joyous moments like when she goes out on a date with the charming yet caring Malik (Sinqua Walls) who works as a doorman in Amy and Adam’s building. The conversation they share over dinner sees both Walls and Diop instilling every line with a naturalness that allows us to get lost in a simple yet standout scene. One joke that Malik tells with a straight face and Aisha’s subsequent pause that then leads to an unexpected moment of deeper bonding cuts deep. It offers hope that maybe she can create a happy life for herself and her son with people that care for her.

anna-diop-nanny
Image via Amazon Studios

Of course, we soon discover that this world and those who profit from it do not care for those like Aisha to find happiness. Without ever being showy, the film frankly and honestly explores how exploitation plays out. It comes from those like Amy who believes herself to be a good person though will be reflexively callous to those underneath her and then somehow make it about herself. When she gets a promotion, the embarrassment of her obliviousness is almost overwhelming as she tries to get Aisha to be happy for her while still skimping on paying her. While he is initially positioned as being understanding by comparison, it also comes from those like Adam who will just throw up his hands about what is going on. In many ways, he is worse as he speaks of the unfair conditions he has witnessed traveling around the world even as he allows similar cruelty to play out right in his own home. It ensures that a photo he took of a young boy fighting against police brutality, which gets pointedly reincorporated in the film’s climax, becomes nothing more than a trophy that Adam can use to demonstrate his faux compassion when it is really just a monument to his own hypocrisy. When he promises her an “advance” even as they’re already behind on paying her, what is infuriating becomes unsettling when he goes full mask off and threatens her so she’ll keep quiet about his own conduct.

This all plays out in small conversations that echo through a vast yet still suffocating apartment, providing a glimpse of how the people that incessantly pat themselves on the back can be just as cold-hearted when behind closed doors. Jusu delicately reveals how, no matter how disquieting this all is, it is merely part of a gradual stacking up of burdens that begins to weigh heavily on Aisha. When she awakens one night with her sheets having become a flooded tomb that is wrapped around her face as she desperately gasps for air, it is a haunting shot that unsettles just as it embodies what her life has become. She has no recourse to any of this as she needs to get this money for her son and the toll this takes becomes crushing when we discover the cost is even greater than we could have foreseen. When I first saw it at Sundance, a brutal conclusion felt sudden and shocking in a way that wasn’t wholly successful. However, with the benefit of a second watch, there is no other way that it could have ended. The way Nanny arranges all the pieces ensures that, when they come crashing down, they deepen the sense of tragedy bearing down on the story from beginning to end.

Rating: B+

Nanny is in theaters now and on Amazon Prime Video starting December 16.



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