By using layered storytelling and mystical visuals, Nikyatu Jusu blends horror and social issues to reimagine the American dream.
The American Dream is a fable passed from generation to generation. America is often painted as a haven where anyone is welcome and can achieve anything they dream of. You must work hard and be patient and you will be gifted with what you desire. Few can afford the luxury of patience and it is this idea that Nanny dives to explore. Nikyatu Jusu’s directorial debut utilizes slow-burning horror and mythology to create a grounded psychological thriller about the costs of what we desire.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who has journeyed to New York City to follow her American Dream. She wants her young son, Lamine, to join her in America so she is working to save up money. His absence is constantly haunting her, and she gets herself a well-paying job that will allow him to soon be reunited with her. Aisha will nanny for an affluent family consisting of Amy, Adam, and their young daughter Rose. It looks like her American Dream is about to come true, but something is lurking in the shadows.
From the very beginning, something feels off about her new gig. On her first day, she wakes up from a discomforting nightmare featuring water and a blue color palette. Then as Aisha tours her new workplace, cinematographer Rina Yang uses the camera to amplify the box of an apartment and the nightmare Aisha will soon inhabit from this job. She is always being watched and tracked as the camera highlights the many cameras around the apartment building. The marriage of her employers is collapsing as the days go on and they bring Aisha into it. Tension builds up from their games and Adam’s lingering looks at her and other women, as well as Aisha asking for her pay. Something more mystical is happening behind the cold, blue walls of the apartment and around the city as Aisha keeps having visions of her son.
Diop is gifted with a complex woman to play. She must embody the many different Aishas throughout the film from the longing mother to the angry employee. Diop can tap into every emotion and change seamlessly throughout every situation thrown her way. Aisha carries weight from being away from her son for a year which overwhelms and submerges her into the abyss. Aisha puts up with the mistreatment from her employers because she knows that it will bring her one day closer to her son.
Nanny is like a modern-day version of West African folklore involving Anansi the trickster spider and Mami Wata, the water spirit. They both begin to show up in Aisha’s nightmares and slip into her consciousness distorting reality. The film uses a lot of water imagery that drowns Aisha as she falls into the despair of her daily life. The use of folklore feels powerful in expanding on the current battles and past of Aisha. While this cold imagery populates her professional sphere, there is a contrast in color as when she finds safety within the West African community, her world grows more vibrant.
Nanny can balance and explore racism, sexism, and classism in depth. The only note to make about Jusu’s script is the conclusion feels a bit rushed in comparison to the slow burn she set up. Other than that, this film never loses its power in what it wants to communicate about a Senegalese woman leaving her country to explore the American dream only to be haunted by her reality.
Should be Considered: Best Original Screenplay
Release Date: Theatrical – November 23, 2022; Amazon Prime – December 16, 2022
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher