The poster for Nanny creates the sense of a very specific, very familiar type of film through an extreme close-up on the face of Aisha, its lead. She looks distressed, her features still recognizable but lightly distorted by smears that look like runny paint or dripping water. It’s easy to picture this image accompanied by discordant music that mines tension and dread out of the stillness, supplementing a story about how this woman comes undone because of the things she’s seen. The poster advertises that Nanny is being released by Blumhouse, a studio primarily known for high-concept horror. The tagline is “We’re haunted by what we leave behind.”
All those hints that Nanny is a horror movie aren’t false advertising: Writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But she’s visibly less concerned with serving jumps and jolts to the audience than she is in crafting a resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and nanny under the thumb of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements meant to visualize her internal struggles never quite cohere.
Right away, the film offers up a sense of the stiff dynamic between nanny Aisha (Anna Diop) and her employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The camera frames both of them from a distance in an unbroken shot, as Amy hands Aisha a big binder of guidelines, contact information, meal plans, and more. Amy isn’t exactly unfriendly, but the camera position creates a sense of remove, chilling whatever warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing awful — a somewhat showy first impression, an air of entitlement. But Amy then steps across that professional boundary by asking for a hug. Aisha is briefly taken aback, but she obliges her boss. Amy doesn’t present the request like a demand, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha was hired to care for Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but she’s hardly in a position to deny the woman in charge of her pay — especially on her first day of work.
Aisha dutifully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s binder, though her payment is in cash and otherwise off the books. She’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s hardly oblivious to the situation; as an undocumented former schoolteacher, this is simply the best avenue she can find for her skillset. Aisha needs the money — she’s hoping to bring her young son, Lamine, over from Senegal. His absence weighs heavily on her, and is made worse by her profession: While she bonds with, cares for, and generally lavishes attention on Rose, her own son is an ocean away. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine is entirely through her phone, in either garbled video chats or recordings of the moments she missed.
Aisha’s guilt over leaving her son behind manifests in strange visions. Rain pours down indoors. A distant figure stands at a distance in a lake. Spider legs cast a long shadow that unfurls like an open maw. Aisha is able to identify some of the imagery, telling Rose stories about Anansi the spider, and how his small size requires him to leverage his cunning to survive. When talking with an older woman (Deadpool’s Leslie Uggams) who’s more versed in the supernatural, she learns that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to communicate something to her. Aisha is fluent in multiple languages, and teaching them to Rose is part of her job. But whatever these mythical figures are trying to tell her is a mystery.
Hallucinations and time loss tied up in guilt and/or trauma is standard territory for people freaking out in arthouse movies. By now, a year without one or two cinematic descendants of The Babadook would feel incomplete. But Nanny stands apart for its imagery, realized with uncommon skill and grown out of folkloric roots far removed from other films’ standard-issue terrors of shadowy entities pounding on the wall. While Aisha’s visions unsettle her, and are meant to unsettle viewers by association, they’re subdued and gorgeous in the way they bathe her in ethereal light. There’s a sense that the visions might not be so unsettling after all, if she could only figure out what they mean.
Where another film might have focused exclusively on Aisha’s pain and mental unraveling, Jusu takes care to show her protagonist trying to live her life and wrest back some control. She vents to a friend about Lamine’s absent father, and strikes up a romance with the building’s hunky doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. She speaks up for herself when her employers neglect to pay her and unpaid overtime begins to pile up. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says he’ll “advance” Aisha the payment, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: It’s not an advance if it’s what she’s already owed.
Jusu excels at highlighting the uncomfortable power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be tense and complex rather than teetering into overtly sinister territory. There’s no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but her discomfort at the liberties they take and the bounds they overstep is always palpable. Amy lends Aisha a dress at one point, insistent that it suits her skin, even as Aisha remarks that it’s a bit tight. Adam’s photography adorns the apartment in big, blown-up prints, and he’s eager to talk with Aisha about the subjects of his art and his fame: Black poverty and strife. These interactions superficially recall the awkward “meet the family” moments of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but the truth of them is cleverly mundane: Her employers feel so comfortably above her that they don’t have to consider her interiority at all.
This dynamic is so well executed, in fact, that it’s curious that Jusu even bothered to dabble in horror, given how much less effective it is than the drama. Aisha’s creepy visions are the weakest part of the film, building to an abrupt end while raising a recurring question: Will an audience only sit still to watch the social perils of a Senegalese immigrant if they’re promised a few stretches of fearful apartment-wandering in between?
Horror becomes a storytelling crutch when it’s used this way, as though it’s the only way to purge the typical happily-ever-after expectations of a more conventional film. The Oscar-bait version of Nanny is as easy to picture as the scary one suggested by the poster, perhaps retaining Diop’s nuanced lead performance, but smothering it in weepy speeches and a theme of virtue rewarded, where hard work pays off and the mean characters either see the error of their ways or get what’s coming to them. Horror may truly be the only storytelling mode that reliably primes the audience for this pessimistic version of the story, but Jusu’s otherwise impressive work suffers when she divides its focus and hides its clearest ideas under genre distractions.
Nanny debuts in theaters on Nov. 23 and will stream on Prime Video on Dec. 16.