‘Nanny’ review: Far from home and haunted by dark forces

In writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s pungent, psychologically unnerving “Nanny,” the title describes a suffocating swirl of demanding job, racialized identity and terror trap for Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant and single mother trying to make a life for herself in New York.

Jusu’s fantastically self-assured debut feature, which garnered her a Sundance jury prize this year, refreshingly approaches horror more as a dramatic prism than a genre template. There’s no “The” in the title for a reason (aside from the fact that it’s not a cheesy caretaker-gone-bad date-night frightfest): In her elegantly unsettling portrait of an invisible woman straddling two notions of home — far from what she’s known, working inside a perilous system — Jusu is letting us know she’s got all diasporic women employed by wealthy families on her mind. And that their fears can easily become nightmares.

It’s a vibe she establishes right away with her moody opening image: our protagonist’s peaceful slumber accompanied by water sounds, then a gathering dissonance, and finally, most disturbingly, a spider crawling into her mouth. When we get to waking reality, we meet Aisha on the morning she’s about to start a new job caring for the daughter of a privileged, busy white couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), who live in a sleekly modern high-rise apartment and lead busy, distracted lives.

Aisha has a child too, a boy named Lamine, but he’s a continent away — for now only a figure on video chat, a source of hope and a reminder of her crushing loneliness as she establishes a quick bond with her charge, Rose (Rose Decker). The goal is to earn enough to bring Lamine to New York, if only the controlling, career-driven, and emotionally needy Amy — edgily played by Monaghan — could remember to pay Aisha on time, and what she’s owed. Adam is kinder, but his interactions with Aisha are no less awkward for seeming ulterior. On top of the stress of navigating her employers’ tension-filled domestic situation, however, Aisha finds her consciousness being invaded by dark forces who spark dreams of suffocation and drowning, or episodes of hallucinatory danger.

Anna Diop in the movie “Nanny.”

(Prime Video)

As intensive and worrisome as Aisha’s hauntings are — artfully handled with subtle visual shifts, sly edits and oozing audio cues — Jusu doesn’t present them as sensationalistic high points or showpieces of victimization. Their horror is in their seeming to just exist as part of the fabric of Aisha’s life alongside the microaggressions at her job and the off-work moments of peace and positivity when she can visit a fellow immigrant friend or start a budding romance (with Sinqua Walls’ appealing doorman Malik).

Aisha is the three-dimensional hero of Jusu’s narrative, after all, not its prey, which is where “Nanny” distinguishes itself in a trope-filled genre, never more so than when Malik’s keenly observant grandmother (Leslie Uggams) shows up — like a well-rooted tree bearing fruit for a weary traveler — to inform Aisha (and us) about these supernatural interlopers warping her reality: one a trickster, the other a water spirit, both figures from West African folklore who can zero in on inner turmoil. With that scene, we understand why “Nanny” feels so different from other movies centering trauma in the marginalized: The need to process Aisha’s anxiety is as much on this movie’s mind as giving her terrors cinematic power (through some top-notch sound design and Ian Takahashi’s evocative underwater cinematography).

With Diop’s anchoring portrayal intertwining buoyancy and ache, “Nanny” gets to stand out as a character study, one of brightness beset by malevolence, and perhaps strengthened by it. Though Jusu doesn’t quite stick the landing — there’s a wallop at the end that isn’t dealt with as emotionally as you might need it to be — it’s still a work of compassion and unease heralding a thoughtful, genre-probing talent.

‘Nanny’

Rated: R, for some language and brief sexuality/nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Regal LA Live, downtown Los Angeles; available Dec. 16 on Prime Video

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