Nanny review: Blumhouse’s immigrant story has a horror problem

Here is the poster Nanny Through a close-up of Aisha (the film’s lead), it creates the impression of a specific and familiar kind of film. Although her facial features remain identifiable, she appears distressed. The smears on her skin look more like water or runny paint. It’s easy to picture this image accompanied by discordant music that mines tension and dread out of the stillness, supplementing a story about how this woman comes undone because of the things she’s seen. This poster says that NannyBlumhouse is releasing the film, which was originally created for horror fans. The tagline is “We’re haunted by what we leave behind.”

All these hints will help you toNanny is a horror movie aren’t false advertising: Writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But she’s visibly less concerned with serving jumps and jolts to the audience than she is in crafting a resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and nanny under the thumb of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements meant to visualize her internal struggles never quite cohere.

It immediately shows the dynamic between Aisha (Anna Diop), her nanny and Amy (Michelle Monaghan). In an uninterrupted shot that frames them both from far away, Amy hand Aisha a huge binder with guidelines and contact information. Amy isn’t exactly unfriendly, but the camera position creates a sense of remove, chilling whatever warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing awful — a somewhat showy first impression, an air of entitlement. Amy asks for a hug, but it’s not a professional move. Aisha was briefly surprised, but eventually she agreed to hug her boss. Amy doesn’t present the request like a demand, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha was hired to care for Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but she’s hardly in a position to deny the woman in charge of her pay — especially on her first day of work.

Aisha (Anna Diop), a dark-skinned woman wearing a bright orange towel, examines herself in a mirror in a darkened room in Nanny

Photo: Prime Video

Aisha dutifully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s binder, though her payment is in cash and otherwise off the books. She’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s hardly oblivious to the situation; as an undocumented former schoolteacher, this is simply the best avenue she can find for her skillset. Aisha needs the money — she’s hoping to bring her young son, Lamine, over from Senegal. Her absence is a burden on her. It is compounded by her profession, which means that Rose is far away from her son. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine is entirely through her phone, in either garbled video chats or recordings of the moments she missed.

Aisha’s guilt over leaving her son behind manifests in strange visions. Rain pours down indoors. An unidentified figure is seen standing at the edge of a lake. The shadow cast by spider legs is long and unfurls as if it were a maw. Rose is told stories by Aisha about Anansi, a spider that lives in a small space. Rose can identify the images and Aisha can tell Rose the story of how he managed to survive despite his tiny size. It is a good idea to talk with an older woman.Deadpool’s Leslie Uggams) who’s more versed in the supernatural, she learns that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to communicate something to her. Rose has to learn languages from Aisha, who is fluently bilingual in several languages. It is still a mystery what these mythical characters are trying to teach her.

People who watch arthouse films are more likely to experience hallucinations or time loss as a result of guilt, trauma, and other mental disturbances. It is unlikely that a year will pass without at least one of the cinematic descendents. BabadookThis would make you feel unsatisfied. But Nanny stands apart for its imagery, realized with uncommon skill and grown out of folkloric roots far removed from other films’ standard-issue terrors of shadowy entities pounding on the wall. While Aisha’s visions unsettle her, and are meant to unsettle viewers by association, they’re subdued and gorgeous in the way they bathe her in ethereal light. There’s a sense that the visions might not be so unsettling after all, if she could only figure out what they mean.

Aisha (Anna Diop), a dark-skinned woman in a colorful pink patterned top, holds the waist of Rose (Rose Decker), a young blonde Caucasian girl wearing a kitty-ear headband, silver jacket, and pink tutu, as she jumps on a bed in Nanny

Photo: Prime Video

Where another film might have focused exclusively on Aisha’s pain and mental unraveling, Jusu She shows her protagonist struggling to make sense of her situation and take back control. She vents to a friend about Lamine’s absent father, and strikes up a romance with the building’s hunky doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. When her employer fails to pay her, and the unpaid overtime starts to accumulate, she speaks out for her self. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says he’ll “advance” Aisha the payment, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: It’s not an advance if it’s what she’s already owed.

Jusu excels at highlighting the uncomfortable power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be tense and complex rather than teetering into overtly sinister territory. There’s no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but her discomfort at the liberties they take and the bounds they overstep is always palpable. Amy lends Aisha a dress at one point, insistent that it suits her skin, even as Aisha remarks that it’s a bit tight. Adam’s photography adorns the apartment in big, blown-up prints, and he’s eager to talk with Aisha about the subjects of his art and his fame: Black poverty and strife. These interactions superficially recall the awkward “meet the family” moments of Jordan Peele’s You must get out, but the truth of them is cleverly mundane: Her employers feel so comfortably above her that they don’t have to consider her interiority at all.

This dynamic is so well executed, in fact, that it’s curious that Jusu even It was a waste of time to try horror. Aisha’s creepy visions are the weakest part of the film, building to an abrupt end while raising a recurring question: Will an audience only sit still to watch the social perils of a Senegalese immigrant if they’re promised a few stretches of fearful apartment-wandering in between?

Horror becomes a storytelling crutch when it’s used this way, as though it’s the only way to purge the typical happily-ever-after expectations of a more conventional film. Oscar-bait Version of Nanny is as easy to picture as the scary one suggested by the poster, perhaps retaining Diop’s nuanced lead performance, but smothering it in weepy speeches and a theme of virtue rewarded, where hard work pays off and the mean characters either see the error of their ways or get what’s coming to them. Horror may truly be the only storytelling mode that reliably primes the audience for this pessimistic version of the story, but Jusu’s otherwise impressive work suffers when she divides its focus and hides its clearest ideas under genre distractions.

NannyThe movie will debut in theatres on November 23rd and stream online on Prime Video December 16.

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