a poster Nanny He creates the feel of a very specific and very familiar genre of film with a very close shot of the face of Ayesha, the film’s heroine. She looks distressed, her features still well defined but slightly distorted by smudges that look like liquid paint or dripping water. It’s easy to imagine this image accompanied by dissonant music working to take the tension and dread out of the stillness, complementing the story of how this woman is held back by the things she saw. The poster announces it Nanny It was released by Blumhouse, a studio known primarily for high-concept horror. The motto is “What we leave behind haunts us”.
They all hint at that Nanny is a horror movie that isn’t false advertising: writer-director Nikiato Josu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But she’s clearly less interested in serving the audience’s leaps and bounds than she is in crafting resonant drama. Josseau paints a rich picture of Aicha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and governess under the control of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements meant to depict her inner struggles never quite cohere.
Right off the bat, the film delivers a sense of the tough dynamic between nanny Aicha (Anna Diop) and her employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The camera frames the two from a distance in an uninterrupted shot, as Amy gives Aisha a slew of directions, contact information, meal plans, and more. Amy isn’t exactly unfriendly, but the position of the camera creates a sense of removal, chilling for whatever warmth she tries to provide. It’s nothing terrible – a rather flashy first impression, an air of entitlement. But Amy then pushes those professional boundaries by asking for a hug. Aisha is briefly surprised, but obliges her boss. Amy doesn’t make the request like the one, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha is assigned to look after Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but is hardly in a position to deny the woman in charge her wages – especially on her first day of work.
Aisha faithfully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s file, even though her payments are in cash and otherwise on the books. It’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s hardly oblivious to the situation; As an undocumented former school teacher, this is simply the best tool she could find for her skill set. Aicha needs money – she hopes to bring her young son, Lamine, from Senegal. His absence weighs heavily on her, made worse by her profession: while she bonds with Rose and is generally caring and generous towards her, her son is estranged from the ocean. Aisha’s relationship with Lamin takes place entirely over her phone, whether in scrambled video conversations or recordings of moments she missed.
Aisha’s guilt in leaving her son behind is manifested in strange visions. The rain is pouring inside. A distant figure standing in the distance in a lake. The spider’s legs cast long shadows that trail like an open maw. Aisha can identify some of the photos, where Rose tells stories about the spider Anansi, and how its small size requires it to take advantage of its cunning to survive. when talking to an older woman (dead listLeslie Uggams) who is more familiar with the supernatural, learns that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to communicate something to her. Aisha is fluent in several languages, and teaching Rose is part of her job. But whatever these legendary figures are trying to tell is a mystery.
Hallucinations and loss of time associated with guilt and/or trauma are standard territory for people who scare in arthouse films. Now, a year without one or two cinematic grandchildren The Babadook It will feel incomplete. But Nanny It stands apart from its imagery, realized with uncommon skill and grown from a folkloric root a far cry from other films’ standard horror of shadowy entities pounding against the wall. While Ayesha’s visions unsettling her, meant to unsettle viewers by association, are subdued and fascinating in the way they bathe them in an ethereal light. There is a sense that the visions might not be so unsettling after all, if only you could figure out what they mean.
Where another movie might focus exclusively on Ayesha’s pain and mental dislocation is Jusu She is keen to show her hero trying to live her life and regain some control. She flings to a friend about Lamin’s absent father, and begins a romance with the building’s hulking janitor (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. She speaks up for herself when her employers neglect to pay her and the unpaid overtime starts piling up. Adam (Morgan Spector), Amy’s husband, says he will “pay” Aisha the amount, which she calmly but firmly corrects: it’s not an advance if it’s already owed to her.
Jusu excels at highlighting the uncomfortable power dynamics at work, allowing Ayesha’s relationship with her employers to be tense and complex rather than teetering in overtly sinister territory. There is no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but her irritation at the liberties they take and the boundaries they transgress is always palpable. Amy lends Aisha a dress at one point, insisting it fits her skin, even when Aisha says it is a bit tight. Adam’s photography adorns the apartment in large, reprinted prints, and he’s eager to talk with Ayesha about the themes of his art and his fame: poverty and black struggle. These interactions are superficially reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s “Meet the Family” awkward moments Get outbut the truth of them is astutely ordinary: employers feel so comfortable with her that they don’t have to think about her inner nature at all.
This dynamic is executed so well, in fact, that it’s strange that Juso is even bothering to wallow in horror, given its less-than-drama efficacy. Aicha’s eerie visions are the film’s weakest part, with an abrupt ending reached while posing a recurring question: Would the audience just sit back and watch the Senegalese immigrant’s social perils if they were promised a few spells of creepy apartment wandering in between?
Horror becomes a crutch for storytelling when used in this way, as if it’s the only way to shed the ever-happy expectations of a more traditional movie. Oscar-bait version of Nanny It’s easy to imagine it as intimidating as the poster suggested, perhaps retaining Diop’s disparate performance in the lead, but smothering it in tearful speeches and a theme of virtue, in which hard work pays off, and mediocre characters see the error of their ways or get what’s coming to them. Horror may truly be the only mode of storytelling that reliably prepares the audience for this grim version of the story, but Jusu’s impressive work ache when it divides its focus and hides its clearest ideas under the distraction of genre.
Nanny It debuts in theaters November 23 and will stream on Prime Video December 16.
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