Writer/director Nikyatu Jusu made her feature debut today at Sundance Film Festival with Nanny, a film steeped in mythology and folklore that will haunt its viewers long after the credits roll.
Set in New York City, the film focuses on Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman working as a nanny for a wealthy family on the Upper East Side. Aisha is focused and driven. Her one goal is to save up enough money to bring her son from Senegal to live with her. It soon becomes clear, however, that all is not what it seems.
Drawn into the marital spats of her employers, Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector), Aisha desperately tries to focus on the child despite the girl’s parents forgetting to pay her again and again. The more she stands up for herself, the more Amy resents her and her bond with the child. When she begins having strange visions that draw her into a trance state, she becomes a danger to herself and others.
Jusu’s filmmaking has a beautiful, almost lyrical, quality to it. She draws upon traditional imagery from African folklore including tales of Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata, the source of some of the earliest mermaid-like stories in the world. As the film explains, both figures symbolize survival and the freedom to live one’s life on your own terms. Those things matter deeply to Aisha. She wants nothing more than to have her son with her so that they can survive together.
For all its mythic beauty and terror, however, there were moments when it felt as though Nanny might leap out of Jusu’s control. As the visions become bigger, more terrifying, her hold on the narrative feels tenuous, but one could argue that birth and rebirth are tenuous, disjointed events so some of this can be forgiven.
Still, there is Diop. For those who are only familiar with the actress’s work in the DC series, Titans, you’re in for a real treat here. There is a stillness in the actress that can take your breath away. Each movement is measured, each breath paced as if moving forward in an interminable race. In her hands, Aisha is a model of control which makes her spiral all the more dramatic and gut-wrenching.
Water is a recurring theme throughout the film, again underlining birth and rebirth, and the actress has a way of acting with the water that is so unusual. It becomes a dance of sorts. It assaults her one moment and cradles her, curled in the fetal position in her bath, the next. She confronts it, soothes it, and becomes it.
It is one of the most powerful and reserved performances this reviewer has seen in years, and it was a treat to take this journey with her.
For those who are wondering, yes, this is a horror movie. The horror comes in fits and starts, overtaking the otherwise grounded story, again with a frenetic, untamed energy.
Ultimately, Nanny may end up drawing comparisons to Remi Weekes’s His House, a film that also confronts the horrors of displacement and family. While the films certainly belong in the same category, Jusu’s film deserves a place of its own without comparison. Africa is not, as is pointed out in the film “just one big country,” and the different stories from different cultures within the continent deserve to be honored for what they bring singularly to the table.
Check out what Nikyatu Jusu had to say about her film below!