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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival 

Nanny is, on its surface, a psychological horror film that critiques of the economics of motherhood. Aisha (Anna Diop) must leave her son in Senegal to work as a nanny for a wealthy white woman in New York. She dreams of saving enough to bring her son to America and Amy needs Aisha so she can follow her dreams of climbing the corporate ladder, breaking into the “boys club” and affording the apartment, education and therapist she believes her daughter Rose needs. But while other filmmakers (and indeed, much of contemporary western cinema) may have typically placed higher value on Amy’s story and ambitions, Nikyatu Jusu’s directorial debut devotes itself to Aisha’s.

Nanny acknowledges the power dynamics and economic hardship that distinguish the women but it also refuses to define Aisha by those terms, instead filling her life with tenderness, magic and romance. Jusu positions Diop within each frame as though she were the subject of a baroque oil painting; constructing an almost worshipful gaze, she bounces colourful lights across her skin and places her in silhouette against shimmering sunsets.

Aisha’s modest home is just as carefully and stylishly decorated as the cavernous rooms of Amy’s apartment. And where Amy, like a succubus encased in white silk, tries to tempt Aisha closer into her narrative she, and Jusu, steadfastly refuse, committing to giving Aisha boundaries and a world outside of her charge’s dysfunctional family. Aisha only wishes to be treated with respect and paid what she is owed. After all, Aisha has problems of her own, ones that manifest in visions, black outs and a creeping sense of dread. She, like the spider god Anansi she tells Rose about, “is a survivor” but not one immune from the horrors that can befall the world’s more vulnerable people.

Where the film somewhat over-indulges is in that creeping sense of dread, the pace of which is too languid to build momentum. Even with beautiful nightmarish visions accompanied by macabre, sparse soundtrack, the impact of each incident lessens as the film goes on. And the final twist, so heavily sign posted, arrives as a foregone conclusion. The epilogue also wraps almost too neat a bow on Aisha’s story, and slightly undermines the significance of what came before.

But Nanny remains an extraordinary debut, one that has power not contingent on a third act reveal or occasional jump scare. It has a rare elegance in its magical realism that evokes Mati Diop’s Atlantics, and a spirituality that feels authentically African. The care and artistry with which Nanny is composed is a testament to how exquisite even the most unglamorous of lives can be.