The new quasi-kinda-non-horror film Nanny grabs a set-up loaded with small-scale sociopolitical explosives: A poor African woman, with a child back in Senegal, becomes the nanny for a self-absorbed high-end New Yuppie family. There are scores of dark corners you crawl into with this, and yet Nikyatu Jusu’s film feels soft and preachy, like a group therapy session for recovering genre-movie fanboys. You wonder what a filmmaker with less fashion sense and more of a yen for extreme pulp might’ve made of it.
In several ways, it’s an updated, New Age of the Migrant Worker reboot of Ousmane Sembène’s landmark first feature, Black Girl (1966), goosed up with horror affect (enough for creep factory Blumhouse to have signed on) and a quasi-happy ending. But that oversells it—certainly, Sembène’s visual austerity and uncompromising attention to discomfiting truths are not for Jusu, an Atlanta native who teaches at George Mason University; the set-up is very similar but the vibe is warm and dawdly. Aisha (drop-dead-gorg Titans and Jordan Peele vet Anna Diop) signs on with the Havs (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector, and I’m not kidding about that name) to care full-time for their perfectly behaved grade-school daughter (Rose Decker), and quickly gets wooed by a hunky single dad (Sinqua Walls). Almost immediately she begins experiencing moody nightmares and hallucinations, some involving her son and all involving water, which is a big hint to the rather arbitrary wall the narrative hits at the very end. The sense of drowning is an apt, if unadventurous, metaphor for Aisha’s sense of dislocation (and a nod toward Sembène’s climactic bathtub scene), as the heroine feels increasingly distanced from her young son back home, thanks to FaceTime glitches and dropped cell calls.
Jusu, in her first feature, doesn’t try to complicate her material—there’s no sense of urgency, just an effort to try to Make Us Feel Aisha’s displacement. Very occasionally, the tense privilege and marital potshots of the white couple provide conflict, but it never coalesces into a subplot, or even ranks as class critique. The subject of wages she’s owed comes up again and again, but the movie is so preoccupied with mustering Aisha’s anxious bubble that we never learn why this wealthy but distracted couple has trouble forking over their cash.
The shortfall of ideas, emotional or otherwise, leaves us swimming around (sorry) in the heroine’s subjective swampiness, and wondering if the Mami Wata mermaid she sees in visions will actually become part of the story. (Despite what genre filmmakers might think, fraught subjectivity in films—visions, dreams, whatever—very often puts the story on hold, and is frequently irrelevant to the gist of the film. When it starts raining on Aisha’s bed at night, we know it’s just punctuation, not text. Trouble is, there’s all too much punctuation.) Jusu is so deft at the more quotidian scenes, you wish she hadn’t bothered to raise the ghost of metaphoric genre stuff at all—the rapport between Aisha and her friends and her new squeeze is lovely, smart, and convincing, and Diop is a magnetic wonder.
Though perfectly nice and carefully shot (busy cinematographer Rina Yang has been Taylor Swift’s go-to music video lenser), Jusu’s film feels caught in a bind—it manages in its prettiness and thematic fuzz to underserve the stress lines of migrant worker life, as it also manages to hardly be a horror film at all. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
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