At the core of Nikyatu Jusu's debut feature Nanny is the story of the American immigrant. While there have been loads of films that explore the immigrant experience, Nanny combines psychological horror with supernatural elements and a narrative deeply involved in the mind of its central character. It is a visually striking if narratively unsatisfying film carried by a magnetic performance from Anna Diop.
The titular Nanny is Aisha (Diop), a Senegalese woman working for a rich white couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). Aisha looks after Rose (Rose Decker) in a large apartment in New York City. Aisha is working to save money to bring her young son to America. She is haunted by the loss of him not being with her. The film follows Aisha as she is overworked, underpaid, and losing a grip on her sanity.
Nanny is visually sumptuous, often washed in heavily saturated lighting. This is especially true of the scenes when Aisha is dreaming or having a vision or at home. When she is working, the colors are cold and washed out to draw a striking difference between who she is and who she works for. The film uses water in a striking way to show Aisha's state of mind as she begins to drown in the weight of her situation.
Mixed into this are a few horror elements. While I am usually in favor of mixing genre elements into dramas, the effect here left me wishing they had played it more straight. The tense and atmospheric score is sometimes the only thing that indicates that the film means to be horror. The surreal but grounded tone works so well that these horror elements often feel jarring, especially in the case of some cheap CGI ruining the otherwise stunning cinematography. Part of the issue with the horror elements here is that they are held until the third act and then rushed, leaving a desire to know more about the lore that is referenced.
While the horror elements interrupt the narrative, Nanny is still often a moving portrait of the mental trappings of immigrant life in America. Aisha is displaced and often unable to affect the external forces that dictate her life. Diop's performance brings so much life and pain to Aisha. It is a moving and versatile performance that is among the year's best.
Nanny is uneven, especially in its rushed and unearned third act. However, it shows immense promise from Nikyatu Jusu. Her visual style and command over the performances here are worth taking note of in anticipation of her next film. The fantastic lead performance and striking, powerful visuals are enough to strongly recommend this one.