A young Senegalese newcomer to New York is haunted by violent visions while working as a nanny and planning for the arrival of her own son, in writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s mystical feature debut exploring the dangerous allure of the American Dream in the immigrant experience.
This striking feature debut from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu — winner of a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ’22 — casts a spell with its oneiric character study of a Senegalese immigrant working as a nanny for an upper-class New York couple while struggling to maintain her own identity and desires.
At first, Aisha (Anna Diop) is excited to start her new position looking after the sweet young daughter of type-A working mom Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and her mostly absent photographer husband, Adam (Morgan Spector). The job should provide the necessary finances to bring her own son, Lamine, to the US within a few months, but almost immediately Aisha is plunged into watery nightmares and hallucinations.
Filmmaker Jusu, whose first foray into the supernatural was her acclaimed short film Suicide by Sunlight, here evokes Mami Wata imagery from African spiritual traditions to explore the seductive danger of the American Dream in the new immigrant experience. While the tension between Aisha and her tone-deaf employers grows, she develops a tender relationship with their building doorman, Malik (Sinqua Walls). Aisha’s feelings of dread only begin to make sense when she meets Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who intuits what Aisha’s visions of Mami Wata may mean, and describes the sacrifices she needed to make years ago to keep her family together.
Aisha’s aquatic hallucinations are disturbing, yet maternal (the underwater waves recall the womb), insistent reminders of the natural cycle of life and rebirth. With echoes of director Ousmane Sembène’s classic psychological study of a Senegalese au pair, Black Girl (1966), Nanny’s hauntingly bold visuals and soundscapes provide the stage for Diop’s elegant breakout performance.
Official Selection, 2022 Toronto International Film Festival
Content advisory: mature themes, not recommended for young children