The plight of domestic care workers — both before and during the pandemic — has never been greater. These employees, predominantly women of color, are tasked with some of the hardest labor: that of mothering and caring for children who are not their own.
“Nanny work” is challenging in and of itself, but in Nikyatu Jusu’s debut “Nanny,” there is an even greater mounting dread as spirits haunt a young New York City care worker as she embarks on a new job.
The promising young woman at the helm of “Nanny” is Aisha (Anna Diop, “Titans”); a Senegalese woman with a master’s degree, she’s arguably overqualified to take on her latest nannying gig for the wealthy and shallow Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector, “The Gilded Age”).
Amy is a chic, stylish businesswoman, struggling with the inherent sexism of her industry, whereas Adam has made a name for himself documenting strife and protest as a photojournalist. They’ve hired Aisha on to take care of their equal parts cherubic and mischievous daughter Rose (Rose Decker, “Mare of Easttown”), an infamously picky eater. Aisha has no love for the preening infantilism of Amy nor the smug wokeness of Morgan, but she’s doing everything in her power to raise enough money to get her son Lamine over to the States.
Though “Nanny” has its moments of tenseness and even brief terror, it is, to its great benefit, mostly a character study. As Aisha, Diop is bright and loving, as well as shrewd and brimming with anger. Amy and Adam take advantage of her at every turn: forgetting to pay her, adding last-minute hours, encroaching on her boundaries. As hallucinations and hauntings pop up — memories or visions of West African folklore — Aisha strives to do all that she can to protect and care for Rose. That her mothering skills and energy go towards a child not her own might be what’s haunting her, or perhaps it’s something more malicious altogether.
“Nanny” is a slow burn, though for the first two acts it is largely engaging, made with sleek style and often intriguing framing, suggesting there’s more than meets the eye to Aisha. Did something happen in her past? Or perhaps she’s barreling towards an unavoidable obstacle in her future? She’s plagued with visions of not only Anansi the spider, crawling across her cheek in the night, but of Mami Wata, a mermaid and trickster. Do they want to hurt her or help her? “Nanny” is wise in asking all these questions, but perhaps ultimately bites off more than it can chew. Though these visions and figures stalk Aisha, she has little interaction with them or with what they might be trying to say to her.
But where “Nanny” shines, ultimately, is in its moments of joy. Though Aisha is haunted, she is granted humanity and an eagerness to love. She begins a gentle romance with Amy and Adam’s doorman, a neighbor of hers named Malik (Sinqua Walls, “American Soul”), who grants her the generosity of spirit and a warm embrace in light of Amy and Adam’s cold, airless politeness. Are these moments enough to save her from what’s coming? The violent and frightening mirages of water and drowning and floods? Her life is beset with terror, but she is capable of standing up for herself, making Aisha far more than a stereotypical “final girl.”
Unfortunately, “Nanny” stumbles and staggers to the finish line, its final act a rush of events and tragedies with little breathing room before its closing credits. The tonal whiplash is far too hasty, undoing much of the strong character work done prior. The flurry of violence is effective, no doubt, and Diop carries the climax with steely vigor, but the writing is simply not up to snuff, leaving her in the wake of tragedy with little if no resolution. It’d be better if “Nanny” leaned into its own ambiguousness and myth-making for its final act; there is no need for the film to be quite as literal as it winds up being. It’s hard to know, too, what the film is saying, if anything, about the type of labor that Aisha does, or if the most horrible thing that can happen to a person is to have bad employers (it’s up there, for sure).
Still, at its core, this is a moving and thoughtful character study, and horror films of late have a dearth of this kind of development, otherwise caterwauling towards the blanket term of “trauma.” Here, we bear witness to all aspects of Aisha’s life, the good and the ugly, as she finds her center. As a feature debut, Jusu’s work is specific and thoughtful, and though its pacing leaves something to be desired, she has a strong sense of what propels a person through a bad job for a light at the end of the tunnel. That Aisha’s love — for Lamine, for Rose, for Malik — grounds her in the face of all that is frightening grants “Nanny” a warmth that buoys the film long after the credits roll.
“Nanny” opens in US theaters Nov. 23 and premieres on Prime Video Dec. 16.