Nanny review: an impressive feature debut for Nikyatu Jusu

Anna Diop in Nanny
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Nanny is an impressive feature debut from Nikyatu Jusu, who combines social commentary, drama and horror – but doesn’t quite balance them.

After winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize at this year’s festival and being quickly picked up by Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Productions, it’s safe to say that Nanny is an impressive feature debut from writer/director Nikyatu Jusu. It’s definitely very assured – handling many layers of social commentary, a complex protagonist and folklore-inspired moments of supernatural horror. It’s an ambitious first feature, and the ambition largely pays off.

We’re introduced to Aisha (Anna Diop), an immigrant from Senegal who gets a job as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan family. Hired by Amy (Michelle Monaghan) to care for her little girl Rose (Rose Decker), the hours are long and the wages she’s given aren’t always correct, but Aisha is determined to hold onto the job for one important reason – she’s saving up to bring her son, who remains in Senegal, to America with her. 

Aisha is a wonderfully complex protagonist whose experience illustrates how easily workers can be exploited, especially if they’re immigrants, poor, women or all of the above. The entire story is a critique of the American Dream. Aisha has travelled to Manhattan to facilitate a better life for herself and eventually her son, but the door to that opportunity seems to already be closed to her. 

There are a lot of layers to Nanny’s social commentary. It deals not just with themes of exploitation, but also motherhood and the guilt that often plagues working mothers. All of these points are woven into the film well, but occasionally become a bit heavy-handed, especially where the affluence of Amy’s family is used as an easy comparison.  

Ultimately, though, those heavy-handed moments where Aisha is underpaid or Amy ignorantly compares their scenarios just serve to make us sympathise with our protagonist even more. Diop’s performance does the rest. She adds so much depth and life to a character who’s just looking to see the returns of their hard work. The role allows her to really show her range. With Rose she’s lighthearted and energetic; around Amy and her husband she needs to be firm and stand her ground. But the scenes she shares with Sinqua Walls (playing single dad Malik) are really lovely. The two actors have great chemistry and their scenes feel very natural, which provides some welcome relief from the tension.

So far you’ll notice I’ve spoken a lot about the themes of the film, and you might be wondering “what about the horror?” There are several tense moments throughout the film, which mostly manifest in visions and dreams that Aisha has. In terms of genuine scariness, everything in Nanny is pretty mild, but the dream sequences are beautifully shot. There’s a lot of water imagery incorporated into those moments, and it’s captured in such a way that it somehow manages to be both serene and beautiful and rather unsettling. 

The horror might be mild, but the ending of Nanny is set to give you a real shock. The more films we watch, the easier it becomes for us to guess how a movie will conclude, but this one maintains that element of surprise. Without giving anything away, though, it’s a conclusion that might be divisive. I’m still not quite sure if I liked it.

In her debut feature, Jusu struggles to balance the drama and commentary with the horror genre elements. Despite this, the astute social commentary, the compelling performance of Diop and the bond that we form with Aisha throughout the film leave us rooting for her the entire time.

Nanny is in selected cinemas from 25th November, and streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 16th December.

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