NOTE: This review was originally part of our Middleburg Film Festival coverage.
A Senegalese woman moves to America with the hope of eventually bringing her son there. To raise the funds, she takes a nanny position in the home of a white couple. What could be a melodrama about racial differences and domestic work is transformed into a dark magical realistic tale spun brilliantly by first-time director Nityatu Jusu. By combining African folklore with a grounded and brilliant performance by Anna Diop, Nanny is a captivating psychological thriller you can’t look away from.
In the film’s lead role is Anna Diop, known for her turns in Us and Titans. In the film’s beginnings, she gives Aisha a quiet yearning, even before the horror elements start. We see her first day at her nannying job, dealing with the over-protective mother Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and bonding with Rose, her charge. Amy has very specific instructions and notions about her child, including that her child is a picky eater. This proves to be untrue when Rose eats most of the Senegalese food Aisha has brought for her own lunch.
We follow her to and from her job, watching as her attempts to contact her son become harder and harder, and her relationship with Amy and her absent husband Adam starts to deteriorate. Amy is reluctant to pay her what she is worth, while Adam is most likely cheating on his wife. This manifests in her dreams. Images of water, spiders, African folklore and drowning flood her thoughts and start to invade her real life. Soon fantasy and reality become intertwined with the possibility of dire consequences.
Jusu’s restrained form of storytelling pays off. Though the pacing is painfully slow for the majority of the film, she knows exactly when she should build tension and when to ease it. While another director might choose to give Adam and Amy’s tenuous marriage more airtime, Jusu doesn’t. That tension is clearly there between Spector and Monaghan, but not knowing the specifics of their private lives only adds to the suspense.
Director of photography Rina Yang is brilliant. The colors and images she can evoke from her subjects are some of the most visually stunning ever seen on film. At one point in the film, Diop turns her head towards the camera. A blue hue pops out high on her cheekbone while a golden light shines bright lower on her chin. Known for her work on Bohemian Rhapsody and Euphoria, Yang is proof that photographing Black people well is a part of the DP’s job and should be done properly.
Diop is a future household name. She gives Aisha the complex layers the character needs to pack an emotional punch. While Nanny is a psychological horror/thriller, it is also a coming-of-age story. Watching Diop build a quiet and angry confidence is fascinating. Sure to be one of the more underrated performances of the year, Diop adds a brilliant depth to an already visually stunning and narratively complex film.
Nanny is set for a limited release on November 23 and on Amazon Prime December 16. Watch the trailer below.