Sundance 2022: “Nanny” Is an Arresting Tribute to Immigrant Mothers with a Haunting Twist

Arresting and restrained, Nikyatu Jusu’s horror film Nanny will lure you in and remain with you long after the credits roll.

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

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A still from Nanny by Nikyatu Jusu. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

There’s something immediately mesmerizing about Nikyatu Jusu’s film, Nanny, which she wrote and directed, and which received the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category at Sundance this year.

In her introduction, Jusu, a Sierra-Leonean American filmmaker, pointedly dedicated her film to the many immigrant mothers who support their children, even when they must leave them behind to forge a better life for them abroad. Setting the stage in this way, it’s easy to read the majority of Nanny as an ode—or maybe something more mournful, a lament—to the eternal fears bound up with the bounty of motherly love and the hard choices immigrant mothers are sometimes forced to make.  

My feelings about Nanny, having of course watched it to its conclusion, are mixed: I thought the film was beautiful and hypnotic, with all-around excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography and elegant directing. And yet, the ending left me with a hollow feeling, one that didn’t seem intended and one I can’t fully explain without giving it away, which would be a disservice to this otherwise compelling film that’s very much worth watching.

It’s easy to forget that Nanny is a horror film, despite the constant unease rippling the still waters of its outwardly composed protagonist, Aisha (Anna Diop), a young Black woman from Senegal who moves to New York to work as a nanny for an upper middle class white family in order to eventually pay for her son to join her. Aisha’s new charge, Rose (Rose Decker) is a sweet, guileless 5-year-old, who immediately takes to her new nanny, even eating the spicy Senegalese food Aisha brings for her own lunch when Rose’s parents can barely get the girl to eat at all.

These parents, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), are by some respects a typically dysfunctional couple. Amy is overworked and neurotic about Rose’s food intake and activities, but she also frequently comes home late, forgets to pay Aisha’s overtime, and presents an overall air of patronizing concern and mostly submerged jealousy. Adam, more laid back, but insidious all the same in his outward conscientiousness, is a photographer who frequently travels for work and brings his daughter tokens home from his journeys, like a storybook of African folk tales.

Almost immediately upon accepting her job as Rose’s nanny, Aisha begins to have a series of unsettling experiences: near drownings, nightmares of her bedroom filling up with water, shadows and sounds no one else sees, and Rose disappearing and reappearing make strange pronouncements. Most of these moments are so seamless with Aisha’s lived reality that it becomes impossible for her, or viewers, to discern if these are hallucinations or visions. Is the absence of her son, Lamine, whom she struggles to speak with over phone because of the time difference and bad connections, haunting Aisha through physical and mental manifestations of the gulf between them, or is she being visited by spirits who have some other motives for their attention?

Nanny interweaves these ingeniously simple moments of terror and anxiety with other scenes more reminiscent of an expressive drama, including Aisha’s frank and reflective conversations with members of the vibrant Senegalese diasporic community in the city and the easy burgeoning romance between Aisha and Malik (Sinqua Walls), the Black American doorman of Amy and Adam’s apartment building. These moments do a remarkable job of keeping one off balance, as it’s never certain when a calm, intimate moment will suddenly morph into one of fear or grief.

It’s when she meets Malik’s grandmother that the ripples in Aisha’s life become more tumultuous. A seer, the grandmother cautions Aisha about the capricious attentions of the Mami Wata, a West African water spirit, like a mermaid or a siren, whom she compares to the folkloric trickster Anansi. Both Mami Water and Anansi, the grandmother urges Aisha to understand, aim to disrupt the dominant order; they are not always kind, but they always bring change. If Aisha is being haunted by these spirits, she “should be asking what they want for you,” not what they want from her.

Arresting and restrained, Nanny will lure you in and remain with you long after the credits roll. Like its spirits, the film is not always kind, but as Aisha realizes herself, after the inevitable changing of the tides it’s up to us what we do with it—and whether we drown or swim.

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.