A glossy, immaculately dressed woman, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is showing her new nanny, Aisha (Anna Diop), around her Upper East Side apartment. The space appears somehow both soothing and sinister—high-ceilinged but claustrophobic, a lot of tasteful grays and dark wood and vaguely industrial metal. (These familiar, almost corporate perfections, we learn later, don’t extend to the room set aside for the nanny’s occasional overnight stays, the ceiling of which is afflicted with a nightmarish creeping mold.) They pass a studio used by the woman’s photographer husband, Adam (Morgan Spector); on the wall, we see an image of an activist shouting heroically, fist raised, against a burst of flame, decorative and incongruous in these muted, moneyed surroundings. The tone of affectionate faux-awe in which Amy notes that they’re not supposed to go in there lets us know that she is in fact the primary breadwinner, the decision-maker.
Monaghan’s character has the brisk air of someone who cares a great deal about the wrong things. She doesn’t seem to know a lot about the nanny she’s chosen for her tiny, blond daughter, Rose, and doesn’t ask much, but brandishes a folder full of micromanaging instructions and schedules and, as she says with a straight face, “any number you could possibly need, including her therapist.”
Already you know exactly who this couple is and how the family lives. Amy’s charm is fraying at the edges, and, over the course of Nanny, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, it often threatens to snap. She comes home late, seeming drunk or depressed or otherwise erratic. She often demands overtime from Aisha at the last minute. At one point, she discovers that Aisha has been feeding Rose, usually a picky eater, a homemade rice dish traditional to Senegal, where Aisha comes from, and flies into a transparently racist panic over whether the food is “too spicy for her tummy.” Even as she falls behind on paying Aisha, she tries to bond with her over the problems she imagines they share as working women (“It’s a fucking boys’ club ... you know what it’s like”).
Indeed, both husband and wife try to play good cop with Aisha at the other’s expense, and both objectify and take advantage of her. Adam waxes lyrical to Aisha about the special charisma of the subject of his protest photo, sadly now dead. He won’t intervene when Aisha complains of her missing pay, but does magnanimously offer to “advance” her some of the cash, which seems to come out of his pocket money from Amy. Then, after kissing Aisha and being rebuffed, he warns her not to tell: Amy is “a little by the book sometimes—it might complicate things for you.” One day, when Aisha is required to stay and watch the little girl during a party they’re having, Amy lends her a dress so she’ll look less out of place; Aisha feels visibly uncomfortable in it, protesting that it’s too tight, but the boss puts her hands on the nanny’s waist and declares it perfect, practically salivating: The color is “made for your skin … mahogany red.”
If this couple seems to be conforming a little too much to type, that’s clearly by design—a narrative choice that’s also a political one. To use this setup as the premise for a thriller may be to court comparison with the Moroccan-French writer Leila Slimani’s 2016 bestseller, The Perfect Nanny, set in Paris but inspired by the fatal stabbing of two children by their caregiver on the Upper West Side in 2012. But Slimani put the infanticide in the opening line of her novel, which thus becomes a study, mostly in flashback, of the inexorable progress of a particular kind of conflicted working mother’s nightmare, rendering the nanny a symbol and an engine of plot as well as a character in her own right. (The nanny in the book is white and named Louise, as in Woodward.) With its ironic title—Chanson Douce (Lullaby) in the original—the novel keeps the focus on the upper–middle-class parents, their fears and their hypocrisies and their delusions about themselves.
Jusu’s title may likewise appear to emphasize the perspective of the employers, but her film—which keeps you guessing throughout as to whether a violent act will occur—is far more interested in the social and psychological predicament of the nanny herself. Aisha is a young woman who has had to leave her own child, Lamine, at home in the care of a cousin. She earns money to send back to him and drinks him in via glitchy video calls whenever she can find a free moment at the right time of day. The parents employing her are simply the frame, the (unfair, frustrating, or worse) conditions of her existence. There’s no great reason to be curious about them beyond that, and they indict themselves with admirable economy. Nanny is a passionately sympathetic portrait of an immigrant mother whose material circumstances work to deny her the role of protagonist in her own life. Such circumstances reward compliance and dissociation, which means that Aisha’s strengths, her rich inner resources, tend to threaten even as they sustain her.
Jusu has suggested that Nanny, which won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is in part a tribute to her mother, who came to the United States from Sierra Leone, and whose own artistic work was often stymied by the domestic service jobs she had to take on to make ends meet. Though the film’s plot quite deftly fuses horror tropes with social realism, its depiction of Aisha and her plight could by no means be described as ugly or gritty—it’s a dark, dreamlike romance. The emphasis is on Aisha’s inward experience, such that it’s not easy to tell how accurate her perceptions of the world outside are, or to pinpoint when she begins to lose her grip on it for long, dangerous moments at a time. In magical realist sequences, snakes and spiders crawl over her or into her mouth, her reflection in the mirror appears to separate from her, and, most frequently, water bursts or pours through ceilings and walls, flooding her bed, threatening to drown her. Between these sequences, we’re reminded of them by the movie’s palette, which often bathes Aisha in luminous blue, even when it’s just the nighttime shadows (as she has relatively few daylight hours to herself) or the light of her phone cast across her face.
The symbolism in Aisha’s hallucinations of drowning or suffocating or being invaded by smaller creatures isn’t always the most subtle, but it is a fair representation of the situation as she sees it. She gets only limited respite: Along with the woman at the wire transfer place and a couple of other friends, there’s a kind, thoughtful man she starts dating, who is also a single parent, and whose mother suffered from schizophrenia and from some of the same forms of oppression—insidious and crude by turns—that plague Aisha.
When Aisha briefly lets anger overtake her with Rose, the little girl seems to both taunt her and express guilt about the nanny’s faraway son, whose rightful place she’s occupying: “He is jealous!” she says. “It’s my fault.” This moment is revealing. Rose, who instinctively prefers what Aisha feeds her and clings to Aisha over the mostly absent Amy, is already manifesting conflicted feelings about the unearned advantage her parents have bestowed on her—she wants to test and revel in that power, but, like them, she simultaneously demands that Aisha love and treat her as an ally. At one point, the seer grandmother of Aisha’s new boyfriend asks, “How do you use your rage?”
One of the film’s notable accomplishments is that it paints a credible picture of the inevitably compromised relationship between Aisha and her charge, and that the growing suspense as to whether something dreadful will happen—to them both, to one by means of the other—does not require that either of them be idealized or made inherently frightening. The conditions just are what they are.
Some of the visions that haunt Aisha come from West African folklore, and we see her read to Rose from a tale about Anansi the spider, a trickster figure whom Rose initially finds confusing compared to the storybooks she’s used to. “Is Anansi bad, Aisha?” she asks. But she can understand well enough when she thinks about the story in terms of herself and the people around her. “Anansi told me to,” she starts to say, slyly, of her own infractions. Rose has thus made at least a step toward an adult apprehension of moral action, of the world as it is. That puts her ahead of both her parents, who seem to guard their belief in their own innocence above many of their other treasures. The nanny has in that sense exceeded the role assigned to her. Aisha explains to Rose that the spider is neither good nor bad, or is good and bad in different measure depending on the circumstances he encounters—that’s because he is, above all, “a survivor.”
Nanny offers plenty of examples of those who don’t survive, and you could call it a highly aestheticized yet painfully close-up portrayal of what someone might need to endure, to feint and dodge her way through, in order to have a shot at doing so. For most of the film, we don’t know whether Aisha may harm or even kill the small, blond child—stakes older than the movies themselves—and one of the most tense aspects of not knowing is our keenly calibrated sense of what it will cost Aisha if she does.