‘Nanny’ review: Predictability hobbles what could have been a fascinating take on the horror of trauma | LFF
It is both the blessing and the burden of just about every modern horror movie that it must be about trauma. It’s not just an amusing Jamie Lee Curtis meme – this meme has meaning, since it seems no new horror movie seems to get made anymore without some obligatory reference or another to any given character’s traumatic history or state of mind. Body horror, psychological horror, supernatural horror, even slasher horror – you name it, you bet it comes with a whole smorgasbord of trauma-related symbolism. It’s the modern horror MO: we’re all going through some rough shit, and isn’t that the real horror?
And so Nikyatu Jusu’s feature-length debut, Nanny, arrives on the scene, with Blumhouse backing and Amazon releasing – a serious vote of industry confidence in the Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker, who’s been 15 years at the short film game until now. Similar to much of her previous work, Nanny deals with the topic of Black women, specifically West African immigrants, living in America. And, being a modern horror movie, it deals with this topic through the prism of trauma, of course. It’s a predictable take on a topic that deserves better than predictability, and this muddled movie ends up letting itself down as a result.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese nanny in New York City, starting a full-time position looking after Rose (Rose Decker), the only child of a snooty Upper East Side couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). She’s working to save enough money to bring her young son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) over to the U.S. to live with her, but each time she calls Senegal, she can’t get through to him, and she’s started having some pretty spooky dreams and hallucinations. Something is clearly quite wrong, but Aisha still doesn’t know what.
Alas, nor does the viewer. Jusu constructs her terrors out of two distinct West African mythologies, outlined to us alternately in the stories Aisha reads to Rose and in the musings of Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), the loving grandmother of Aisha’s new beau, Malik (Sinqua Wells). These stories are entirely separate, linked only by their supernatural slant and by their presence in Jusu’s own story. She uses them for eerie effect, but it’s a hollow effect, characterized by stylistic slickness over subtextual substance. Water/mermaid and spider motifs respectively represent the mythological figures of Mami Wata and Anansi, as we eventually come to learn, but divorced from that knowledge, Jusu’s imagery lacks the potency it needs to induce in the viewer the sense of fear and foreboding she requires.
And she requires that sense for a simple reason: outside of all that style, her story is seriously lackluster. Aisha bonds with Rose, grows suspicious of Rose’s parents, grows closer to Malik, and grows increasingly worried about what’s happening with Lamine, but that’s largely it. Once Jusu has concretely established the nature of the terrors in effect here, she develops them with an approach best described as slapdash – there’s no clear design to it, no consistency, no sense of internal logic. Rain comes pouring in through the roof, mermaids appear in the Hudson, spiders manifest out of shadows on the wall, but it’s all patently metaphorical for some deeper, concealed malice at play. Yet by the time Jusu has Aisha brandishing a kitchen knife over the bathtub, one may wonder if there’s any depth at all, and if the only thing being concealed is the point to all this.
It’s legitimately frustrating to witness Nanny descend into needless disorientation, not least because there’s clear talent on display. Early scenes fizz with real emotional frisson, the product of fine actors working with solid premises. The subliminal racial tension between the absent, flippant, unfeeling rich white mother and the kind, caring Black immigrant nanny is excellently played by Monaghan and Diop, and indeed the entire cast is very good, at least when given material worthy of their talents. Jusu’s talents are themselves evident here, that is before she neglects to imbue those premises with any additional weight or nuance and resorts instead to repeating the same few points over and over with increasing fluster and decreasing force.
And in the end, there’s little doubt what it’s all going to add up to. Nanny isn’t a movie about Mami Wata, or Anansi, or even the topic of female West African immigrants working for rich white snobs in America. It’s a movie about trauma – what else? – but it’s so fuzzy on precisely what that trauma is, and even more so on how to depict it, that it can’t even make this point convincingly. It winds up depressingly run-of-the-mill, and shoddy too – Jusu dumps characters most unceremoniously once her narrative has moved elsewhere, and Rina Yang’s cinematography marks Nanny as yet another entry in the catalogue of recent movies with would-be artfully moody imagery that’s really just murk-on-top-of-murk, and her capturing of darker skin is quite woeful. There are nuggets of excellence under the water here, hints of the excellent movie it could have been. But it’s not that movie, it’s this movie, and this movie buckles under the burden of all its unnecessary trauma.
This review is from the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Nanny in theaters November 23 and on Prime Video December 16.