Austin Film Festival Review: Nanny

Eerie migrant drama is an intriguing addition to Black horror

Offering a textured point-of-view from a type of character not given much visibility in a lot of mainstream cinema, Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny is a laudable and clearly deeply personal story.

This genre-bending film depicts the struggles of Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) as she gets what is often the most immediately available form of work available for someone in her position: domestic work. She’s nannying for Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), two rich, seemingly well-meaning New York liberal types who live in their chic and gentrified apartment with their daughter Rose (Rose Decker). Her work is in an effort to be able to transport her own son, still living in Senegal with her cousin, to America — essentially raising another couple’s child so she can have the opportunity to raise her own.

Aisha’s day-to-day life becomes defined by constantly evolving tensions and dynamics defined by race, class, and expected societal roles. Amy and Adam both indulge in their fair share of microaggressions. Amy, in particular, is strict about the food Rose eats and it becomes a secret Aisha must harbor when she begins feeding Amy some of her cultural dishes. Rose beginning to latch on close to Aisha as an alternative mother doesn’t help to alleviate the tension, nor does the fact that her parents’ marriage is seemingly on-the-rocks.

As if she doesn’t have enough to navigate, Aisha is soon overcome by haunting visions and nightmares that seem to be manifesting from deep within her psyche. Jusu isn’t afraid to play with and defy expectations of what type of movie this is allowed to be, constantly adjusting itself into disparate forms and genres. It’s not quite the full-tilt social horror of Jordan Peele (though it feels inspired) but it doesn’t limit itself to preconceived notions of what a “psychological horror” should be either. There’s even inspiration taken from West African folktales, which make for sequences that engage with the realm of the mythic.

It’s no doubt a beguiling mixture of ingredients, but to say it’s a perfect amalgamation would be dishonest. The constantly shifting modes give this a palpable sense of disorder—perhaps indicative of Aisha’s worsening mental state, but it also just feels clunky. There’s certainly a case to be made that this would have been more effective a narrative if it leaned more one way or the other: either a realistic drama about the immigrant experience of America or centering the genre elements with more force. As is, for as unique of a perspective this movie offers, it feels like a woefully anonymous amalgamation of other vaguely artsy, genre-film-adjacent psychological thriller fare in its structure.

It’s unfortunate, because this staggering story and the stunning, vulnerable performance from Diop get diluted amidst the disarray. Still, Jusu walks away from this a promising filmmaker to watch out for, clearly capable of conjuring a stirring mood and a striking image. Nanny isn’t able to follow through on all of its ideas, but those ideas are pretty undeniable.


Austin Film Festival, Oct. 27-Nov. 3. Details and badges at austinfilmfestival.com.

Don't miss our interview with writer/director Nikyatu Jusu, "The Terror of Motherhood in Nanny" (Culture, Oct. 21).

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Film Festival, AFF 2022, Nanny, Nikyatu Jusu, Anna Diop, Austin Film Festival 2022

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