Director & Screenwriter: Nikyatu Jusu
Starring: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, and Morgan Spector
Cinematographer: Rina Yang
Sundance Synopsis: Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, lands a job as a nanny of a wealthy Manhattan couple. While she easily wins the affection of their young daughter Rose, she becomes a pawn in the couple’s facade of a marriage. The mother is as controlling as the dad is disillusioned and woke. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind in Senegal, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. and share in the life she is piecing together. But as his arrival approaches, a supernatural presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality.
In her feature directorial debut, Nikyatu Jusu elegantly blends supernatural terror with innate fear in this story about a Senegalese immigrant mother Aisha and her pursuit of happiness and well-being for herself and her son Lamine. Her narrative around motherhood and intuition is represented by a script that is far more than meets the eye with beautiful imagery that draws inspiration from West African folklore. This is simply one of the best films of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival for me.
At its core (and best), Nanny reveals an unnerving Black immigrant experience as Aisha navigates life in New York caring for a wealthy white couple’s child, Rose. Their selfishness and neglect for their child’s well-being haunts Aisha’s mind as she cannot fathom another day without her young son Lamine. Still, she shows up to work everyday, demands what is owed to her, and does her job extremely well in hopes that her pay could one day reunite her with him.
When Aisha thinks about her son, which also happens to come during her interactions with Rose, Jusu uses a fascinating approach in her direction. To present the unnerving feeling of being so distant to Lamine, Jusu submerges sinister-like and creepy imagery throughout the feature. Frequently, this is paired with a paranormal entity that seems to overtake Aisha and make her blackout during the most inconvenient times, leaving her as confused as audiences might be during these occasions. Rina Yang’s cinematography brings to life these notions profoundly as audiences are left to decide if these circumstances are truly happening or they’re a manifestation of Aisha’s guilt of leaving behind her only son in Senegal. These moments are also when Anna Diop delivers a performance with insane precision. Diop’s ability to make me truly believe that her fears have manifested into a hateful entity was seamless, demanding sheer empathy throughout these happenings. I also couldn’t help but to fall in love with Aisha’s character in the process, as she navigates a new life in New York while being called to the demands of desperation.
Jusu’s script also plays on the idea of an unattainable American dream. Aisha’s employers refuse to pay her in a timely manner, and she doesn’t have the proper resources to reunite with her only child. These are all horrors immigrants have to confront when standing in the face of the American dream that promises to be attainable but is more difficult to reach when your skin is of a certain complexion. And notably, Jusu reminds audiences of this when a mermaid frequents the screen, luring Aisha to the bottom of an ocean.
It is not at all surprising how some have (and will) miss the visual cues that Jusu’s directorial debut elegantly lays out for audiences. The mermaid imagery and allegories can, after all, have different meanings depending on specific cultures. But it’s exactly why Nanny is brilliant to me, as it uses these concepts to its advantage. In European folklore, for example, mermaids are often described as sirens — entities that lure people to their deaths. It’s why we see Aisha being pulled to the depths of the ocean- sinking when she’s most vulnerable, as she reflects on the reunion with Lamine. West African cultures, on the other hand, often represent mermaids as the symbols of fertility, health and life, which plays an intricate part of Aisha’s ascension by the film’s end.
Ultimately, the use of horror in this film to convey internal pain and conflict is a beautiful strategy that Nikyatu Jusu executes damn near perfectly. It’s why each “horror element” is carefully and intentionally placed so as to not overcrowd or distract from the themes of the story. Instead, their incorporation amplifies them. She takes this a step further and uses these as tools to express a mother’s intuition. The instincts that mothers possess are like none other- even if the person experiencing it can’t fathom the source of their worry. And in Nanny, Jusu represents this well by using a darker presence that apparently seeks to disrupt Aisha’s dreams of bringing her son Lamine to America, while Aisha simultaneously tries to ignore the very monster that seeks to reveal itself. The symbolism is truly remarkable, revealing the intelligent decision-making when it comes to depicting motherhood and intuition on screen.
This visually stunning and emotionally gripping experience is not only a love letter to immigrant mothers who fight to provide the best for their children, but it also reminds us of the hurdles up against them. Thanks to the beautiful symbolism and laser-sharp focus of Jusu’s lense, this film knows no bounds when it comes to genre-blending and bending. And for that, I truly thank writer/director Nikyatu Jusu because Nanny truly delivers in entertainment, drama, and an emotionally-compelling story that will stay with me for years to come.