dir: Nikyatu Jusu
Nanny comes at a time where it seems to be “of the moment”, or to put it most horribly, it’s very zeitgeist-y. There have been a string of recent novels about immigrant women working as nannies or au pairs and wanting to murder their precious charges (most notably Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby), but this is the most recent I can think of that shoots for (eventually) straight horror, supernatural or otherwise.
It doesn’t really work, at all, but I still enjoyed watching it. Primarily, it’s a visually strong film, and it stars the luminous Anna Diop, who’s mostly worked in television and is best known, at least by me, for playing Starfire in the Titans series. She’s great, here and elsewhere, but…
I think this film knows what it’s trying to say – the immigrant experience, documented or otherwise, compels many women to leave their families or their kids behind, travel to other countries where they sometimes have to look after the kids of wealthy shitheads. This causes a certain amount of tension. You end up lavishing all the love and care that you have in you, onto someone else’s kid, in order to get the money to send back to the people looking after your kid.
But for some strange reason despite being wealthy these rich fuckers never pay on time. And they make insane demands all the time. And the husband tries to fuck you. And the drunken wife resents you because the kid likes you more, and they feel guilty because they’re away from home working or travelling…
This is rich ground psychologically to plant a lot of dramatic seeds from which could spring the stuff of social commentary and / or nightmares. The flick wants to have its cake and eat it too, and I don’t think it earns that paradox at all. At all. Especially because it goes down a certain track that seems unforgivable when the big “reveal” happens at the end.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is in the States in an undocumented manner, meaning that she can’t work officially, and needs to get by with cash in hand jobs. A (white) family with their one precious Rose (Rose Decker) have all sorts of expectations of Aisha. It’s almost like there’s the feeling of entitlement to her time and presence, because she should be so grateful.
There’s oh so many micro-aggressions, but that’s okay, that’s what we’d expect. All of the nannies seem to be from “other” backgrounds, and they are all at the mercy of employees who see them as the exploitable resource that they are.
Aisha sends money back to Senegal, where her son Lamine is. She facetimes him as often as she can, but that can only go so far. I can’t really see that she has any plan beyond earning as much as she can to send back to Senegal in order to allow for her friend to send her son to her in the States. I’m not sure why this is the plan, but this is the plan.
Her employers are as awful as you imagine they would be. The mum (Michelle Monaghan) of course is a nervy tyrant, who somehow appreciates what Aisha can bring to the table for her daughter (being bilingual, she can teach English and French to Rose), but simultaneously resent the fact that this woman gets to spend way more time with her daughter than she does.
And she’s a workaholic / alcoholic whose photojournalist husband (Morgan Spector) fucks everyone he comes into contact with, except presumably his wife. At least he pays Aisha on time, eh? As well as going in for a kiss when the opportunity presents itself.
Bleh. Boo. I boo what you're doing. At a certain point, when Aisha prepares for her son to arrive, but at the same time seems to lose contact with her peeps in Senegal, she starts having nightmares and hallucinations, fainting episodes, a whole bunch of ugly stuff happens. So we think to ourselves: is she losing her marbles because of the separation from her kid, from the split in consciousness that arises from trying to be in two places at the same time, or is something else at play?
When Aisha starts a tentative relationship with Malik (Sinqua Wells), a guy who also has a son from a previous relationship, she gets introduced to his grandmother (Leslie Uggums) awfully quickly, just so Aisha can hear some nonsense about African myths, mermaids and spirits, all of which force you to put two and two together in order to come up with five. Rose also got a picture book about Anansi, the West African trickster god, who sometimes takes the form of a spider. Cue images of spiders and such, including a scene so horrible (to me, an avowed arachnophobe) that I’m not even going to describe it.
Shit is getting worse for Aisha. Either she is under assault by supernatural forces that are encouraging her to stand up for herself or murder the child in her care, or guilt / a propensity for psychosis is pushing her towards a dissociative state where she might harm others or herself.
And then there’s the actual explanation, which is disappointing, sad and irritating all at the same time. I don’t even know if it makes more sense than the other explanations, but it leads to an ending for the film that is pretty much a shoulder shrug, and then it ends.
I found that kinda baffling, I have to say. No-one else really exists as a character in the flick other than Aisha. Even Rose the kid is mostly just there until she starts spouting stuff about Anansi that makes you wonder whether she’s in on it too, or if Aisha’s just hallucinating, or if it’s just a coincidence.
She is there mostly for the two women to fight over. And what do they fight over? Food.
The little tyke is seen as being a fussy eater by her parents, and Aisha’s job and solemn responsibility is to feed her the bland crap the mother demands. We don’t know of any allergies or intolerances or whatever, we just know that if these parents, white urban liberals, are going to be a completely recognisable cliché, then they’re going to have to be precious about food.
Of course Rose wants what Aisha eats, and really seems to enjoy her jollof rice, which is a West African staple, a bit spicy, but definitely tastier than bland tofu and cucumber sandwiches or whatever the mum is going to insist on. Of course the mum loses her shit when she sees what the kid actually wants to eat.
That is more interesting to me than surreal scenes where Aisha thinks she’s drowning or thinks she sees Lamine everywhere or of evil looking mermaids doing evil mermaidy things. That stuff…
There are things the flick gets right. The cinematography works, knowing how to shoot the actors in the best manner in which to best represent them. Anna Diop is always top tier, and I get that she can relate to the character a lot, being Senegalese herself. But there’s less stuff for her to do the longer the flick goes on, and it really feels like the ending is truncated in some way that completely robs the story of what it needed in order to really hit hard.
And as great as some of the visuals are, they equate not to scenes that mean something in the context of the story (like the great shot of Aisha curled up in a bath, shot from above, or seeing herself from behind in the mirror), but scenes staged to look cool but that don’t make a lot of sense (like, how’s she meant to breath curled up like that?)
Nanny also really doesn’t deliver on its premise, on its story, and it relegates Aisha’s journey and story to “well, I guess everything will still somehow work out in the end”, which is completely at odds with the story that seemed like it was being told.
It’s a missed opportunity.
6 times she wasn’t working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, when her boyfriend didn’t kick her out in one of those crushing scenes out of 10
“The spirits are trying to warn you. Do not ignore the signs” - Nanny