Motherhood was certainly a theme of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, from the lighthearted abortion drama Call Jane starring Elizabeth Banks to the suspense thriller Resurrection starring Rebecca Hall. Titans actress Anna Diop isn’t nearly as well known in comparison, and yet it was her new Sundance movie, Nanny, that outshined the others in terms of its thematic exploration of motherhood.
Produced on a shoestring budget by indie production companies, Nanny presents as a small, unambitious movie, but it eventually reveals a powerful emotional core. It may be a bit of a tough sell for mainstream audiences beyond the arthouse crowd, and thus, difficult to imagine thriving on a major streaming service, but don’t let its limited commercial appeal fool you. Nanny offers a compelling story that slowly crawls under your skin until its impactful final moments.
Written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu, Nanny stars Diop as Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who takes care of some privileged children on the Upper East Side, where she soon discovers that the American Dream isn’t available to every person who reaches our shores. Almost immediately, Jusu’s script treats us to a feature that is frequently absent from the American Dream tale: Aisha’s painful longing for the life she left behind, accentuated when those who begin to surround her treat aggressively treat her like an outsider.
We meet Aisha after she has arrived in Manhattan from Senegal, where she was forced to leave behind her son with other family members. Thus, Aisha’s principal focus is to make enough money to fly her son to the U.S. to live with her. Soon, Aisha lands a job as a babysitter to a wealthy white couple. The mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is stereotypically controlling, as telegraphed by a thick binder of instructions for the new nanny’s tutelage of her daughter, Rose. The father, Adam (Morgan Spector), is going through a midlife crisis and is bored in his marriage. Rose takes to Aisha, but this does not alleviate the pressures and injustices she suffers at the hands of her self-involved parents.
As Aisha begins to get closer to her dream of paying for her son and cousin to come live with her in America, she begins to have a series of strange, supernatural visions and nightmares. Here, Jusu relies on West African folklore from her youth, including with references to Mami Wata — a strange, creepy underwater mermaid with a sinister look and perhaps equally dubious motivations — and to Anansi the Spider, an eerie little animal that crawls into spaces and invades your dreams. Aisha begins to develop a romance with Amy and Adam’s building’s doorman, who later introduces her to his clairvoyant grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) who warns Aisha that there is grave peril in these visions and dreams.
Jusu’s script clearly suggests to you the source of this danger, though it has a few surprises that you may or may not see coming. Amy becomes more demanding, and at times refuses to pay Aisha, who has to loudly demand her compensation. Meanwhile, Adam stares at her a lot, considering himself a “cool” progressive because he shines a light on war and racism with his photography. The two have an unhappy marriage and pit Aisha against the other — manipulations she does her best to ignore, but only escalate over the course of the film.
If Nanny sounds claustrophobic and stressful, that’s because it is. Jusu’s tight script and Diop’s committed performance help convey these feelings, as does the director’s effective visuals and aural soundscape. The most notable below-the-line element is Rina Yang’s cinematography, which shines every time Aisha’s brain transitions from reality into dreams, from truth into fiction, from air into water. Water is a persistent them — plainly associated with danger here — and Yang proved more than up for the challenge of showing stark, clear images in the otherwise murky waters in which Aisha’s nightmares take place.
Second, Bartek Gliniak‘s score heightens Aisha’s feeling of being trapped by using the typical spooky notes that you hear in horror movies and then accelerating them until your ears feel like they are being pressed down. The film combines Gliniak’s score and Yang’s photography in a quietly effective way, and as strange as the story may seem at times, the precision with which each artist carries out their craft makes the film greater than the sum of its parts.
True, there are certain elements of Nanny, particularly its script, that do not always logically jive. The most salient one pervades many horror films, which is that the central character is clearly in danger, that something is clearly wrong or off, but nonetheless, they mostly go on about their business. The fact that she continues to put herself in water-related settings after repeated clear warnings is particularly galling and difficult to swallow.
Still, Nanny is an effective and memorable film because of the way it’s sculpted around important and powerful themes. Being a mother is stressful, and the idea of being away from your child and your family, particularly as an undocumented immigrant living in a largely hostile foreign land, is unfathomable. Having to put up with the quiet, condescending emotional abuse of the privileged is, in a way, just added insult to injury. All of that, though, is a significant, indelible part of the immigrant experience in America today. Few films manage to employ such a quiet story to tell it in such a powerful way.
Nanny is an acquisition title at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in U.S. Dramatic Competition.