Multiple unnerving things happen to Senegalese nanny Aisha (Anna Diop) in Nanny, be it visions of creepy-crawly spiders and mishaps with knives, or run-ins with a mythical creature that promises damnation and/or rebirth.
Unfortunately, while those incidents may be scary for the young single mother, they’re infinitely less so for audiences of Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut. Nanny doesn’t straddle the line between immigrant drama and supernatural nightmare as much as it refuses to commit to either one of those lanes. Perceptive about its domestic milieu but flat and obvious when it comes to terror, it’s the sort of work that strives to be “elevated horror”—and, in the process, winds up epitomizing much of what’s wrong with that genre approach.
Despite being produced by Blumhouse, Nanny (in theaters November 23; on Prime Video December 16) has no interest in seriously rattling the nerves. Instead, it employs familiar spooky maneuvers to create a mood of ominous portent and dread that’s in tune with the mindset of its protagonist. Aisha has left her homeland for a better life in New York, and she hopes to bring over her son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) once she’s earned enough money.
To do that, she takes a job as the nanny for Rose (Rose Decker), a young Manhattanite whose mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is an awkwardly friendly professional and whose father, Adam (Morgan Spector), is a war-correspondent photographer whose office is decorated with his snapshots—most prominently, one of a young Black firebrand screaming in defiant fury in front of a raging conflagration. Both these parents are more discontent than outward appearances imply, and that goes for Rose as well, a cheery girl with a disinterest in eating the healthy, prepackaged foods that neatly line her refrigerator’s shelves.
That problem is solved, somewhat covertly, when Rose proves intrigued by Aisha’s homemade Senegalese dishes, and they quickly form a close connection. While Adam is pleased about this, Amy instinctively views it as a threat to her maternal bond, and the ensuing friction is one of numerous ways that Nanny identifies and exploits modern household dynamics for suspense.
Contributing to that fraught atmosphere is the fact that Adam and Amy are far from lovey-dovey thanks to Adam’s lothario proclivities, which is contrasted by Aisha’s growing affair with Malik (Sinqua Walls), a compassionate apartment building employee that she begins dating.
Furthermore, Aisha’s adoration of Lamine—with whom she struggles to speak on the phone, and who seemingly harbors resentment about his mother’s absence and unfulfilled promises of reunion—is the opposite of Amy and Adam’s generally hands-off, unemotional method of parenting.
Nanny understands the multiple forces at play in this scenario, and heightens them by having Aisha gradually become more incensed over Amy’s failure to pay her on time and Adam’s faux-helpful responses to her concerns. Class and race are both unspoken factors that director Jusu nonetheless makes sure to highlight, via blooming lighting that accentuates Aisha’s dark skin color in this pristine white enclave.
Somewhere nestled inside Nanny is an intriguing examination of the ways in which immigrant child caregivers are at once welcomed into, and yet remain fundamentally apart from, the homes and families that hire them, and when it opts to navigate those corridors, Jusu’s film remains on reasonably solid ground.
Too often, however, Nanny pretends to be an actual horror film—something it most certainly is not, at least in terms of building and maintaining tension, implying legitimate danger, or conjuring memorably disturbing sights.
Aisha is introduced sleeping on and under a bed sheet that becomes coated in water, and slumbering states and aquatic motifs run rampant throughout the remainder of her ordeal. At a playground, Aisha thinks she sees Lamine standing in a sprinkler downpour. Rain cascades from the ceiling of the bedroom Aisha uses while staying overnight at Amy and Adam’s apartment. She’s plagued by flashes of herself curled up in a fetal position in a full bathtub. And she nearly drowns in a public pool, during which she’s visited by a Mami Wata, a mermaid-ish spirit that, like the “trickster” spider Anansi, is a figure from West African folklore that either wants to hurt her or divulge some wisdom she can’t quite discern.
The Mami Wata is explained by Malik’s psychic-witch grandmother (Leslie Uggams), and its presence further blurs the already fuzzy line between Aisha’s conscious and unconscious realities. Jusu, however, does nothing to make that haziness unsettling, telegraphing every pedestrian dream sequence and suggesting no genuine menace that could cause Aisha harm. Worse, Aisha’s waterlogged hallucinations, which are generally tangled up with Lamine, are glaring hints about the tragedy that awaits her, such that it’s impossible not to always be three steps ahead of the proceedings.
Diop successfully evokes Aisha’s sense of anguished displacement and her disgust at having to stomach exploitation for the sake of her son. Yet the character’s wannabe-foreboding encounters and calamities are leaden and never raise one’s heartrate—or, for that matter, complicate the film’s overarching portrait of dislocation and despair.
Nanny is too busy intellectualizing horrors to shock or surprise. Uggams’ character twice sees fit to expound upon the Mami Wata, but the monster—spied primarily in murky shadows—has scant personality and serves only a symbolic purpose that’s hammered home by a finale that races through the trauma to which it’s been building, as well as the rejuvenating happily-ever-after that follows in its wake.
Jusu treats Amy and Adam’s (and their upper-crust friends’) attitudes toward race in similarly hurried fashion, nodding to those issues so faintly that they fail to make an impact. The same can also be said about Monaghan’s performance as Amy, a two-dimensional workaholic whose difficulties at home and at the office—which, during an attempt at bonding with Aisha, are revealed to include misogynistic boys-club pressures—come across as half-baked.
Ultimately, Nanny raises a host of promising ideas but imparts little about any of them. All the while, it boasts considerable empathy for its protagonist, whose journey toward acceptance and healing requires navigating a landscape of major and minor infractions, but not many frights that might make her saga memorable.