Ghosts are everywhere in Nikyatu Jusu’s atmospheric feature directorial debut, “Nanny,” though few of them look like we’ve come to expect from decades of horror films. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling, a particular twist of the wind. Sometimes, it’s a photograph. Sometimes, it’s a story. And, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a whole person, gazing out from beyond, well, somewhere. From the start, there is a queasy energy to Jusu’s get-under-your-skin film, one made all the more unsettling to her dedication to showing a full-spectrum leading lady (your usual final girl, she is not) caught in a surprising milieu.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese immigrant who has arrived in New York City with her own American Dream, though one that should really not feel so out of reach: she just wants her adorable young son Lamine, who is back in Senegal, to join her. When she gets a new job nannying for an affluent couple with a cute kid (Rose Decker), the steady paycheck seems destined to get Aisha and Lamine on the right track. But the real cost is one Aisha could never have seen coming.
Despite Aisha’s happiness over the new gig, something feels wrong from the start. The morning of her first day, a sleeping Aisha is plunged into a discomfiting nightmare — one of many key scenes that involve water, both dreamt and real, often bolstered by a rich green and blue color palette — and even waking up to realize, no, she was not actually drowning doesn’t add much relief. Cinematographer Rina Yang’s camera both boxes Aisha in and sets her at a far remove; when she first arrives at Amy (a chilling Michelle Monaghan) and Adam’s (Morgan Spector) apartment, Aisha can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched, and she is, as we both observe her in an elevator and through the surveillance camera tracking her. But that claustrophobia doesn’t abate upon her arrival in the large apartment, with Aisha and Amy circling each other at a far distance. When they do come close to each other, it’s hardly comforting.
But the kid is cute and the pay is good, if only Amy could remember how much she has promised Aisha for her daily work and any special asks. (Is Amy, brittle and spacey and touchy, really so forgetful? Or is this just another one of the many micro-aggressions that Jusu skillfully piles on over the course of the film?) Monaghan is unnerving as Amy, a seemingly successful professional who falls to pieces at home, a stranger to her daughter, someone who treats her creepy husband as king of the castle while also bemoaning the current state of feminism.
Things only get worse when Adam, a photographer who seems to have a real affection for chronicling unrest, war, racism, and pain in his work, returns home. Amy and Adam’s marriage is clearly not working out, and while Aisha does her best to ignore it, the pair soon delight in playing their careful, smart nanny against the other. That would all be bad enough — plus Aisha’s constant need to ask for her pay, which is often incorrect, or Adam’s lingering looks — but as Jusu slowly turns up the tension, it’s obvious something far more sinister is lurking inside the walls of their cold, massive apartment. Outside, things are odd, too, as Aisha struggles to reach Lamine and keeps “seeing” him around town.
While Bartek Gliniak and Tanerélle’s score does a lot of traditional “horror movie!” work — lots of strings, plenty of foreboding tones — Jusu opts to turn her attention to the more edifying elements of Aisha’s life, including a budding romance with Malik, the doorman in Amy and Adam’s building (a charming Sinqua Walls). It’s also Malik who introduces her to his clairvoyant grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who seems to see plenty others can’t (or won’t). Too often, however, that includes Jusu, whose interest in showing the full range of Aisha’s life feels like a misdirect toward the meat of the film. (Related: Aisha and Malik’s relationship might sink the film’s tension, but it also shows off Jusu’s chops as a romantic director, these two have heat and she directs it all beautifully.)
Still, Jusu’s desire to dig into Aisha outside the realm of whatever the hell is happening with Amy and Adam (and the many things they represent), offers Diop a multi-faceted character to play, the likes of which we don’t often see in traditional horror films. As Aisha, Diop is gifted with a full meal of a role, and she easily embodies all the different Aishas we meet over the course of the film. (Jusu has said she long had her eye on the actress, best known for TV series like “Titans” and “24: Legacy,” and like many of her impulses exhibited in the film, it was the right one.)
But which one is the real one? Which one is the ghost? Jusu’s script, while prone to meandering through its second act, delivers a powerful punch as the film ratchets toward its inevitable conclusion. The first-time filmmaker may be attempting to fit too many ideas into one sleek package, but that doesn’t mitigate the truth of “Nanny”: All of it haunts.
“Nanny” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.