A still from Nanny by Nikyatu Jusu, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Nanny ★★★★

The challenges and dedication of immigrant mothers is showcased in Sundance’s impressive horror selection Nanny from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu. Using African folktales as a vessel for which to showcase the realistic horrors of working conditions faced by many domestic workers going through the immigrant experience, Nanny is a punchy genre treat.

Senegalese Aisha (Anna Diop) gains a job working as a nanny for a white-liberal family headed by girl-boss Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and woke war photographer Adam (Morgan Spector). Quick to bond with their daughter Rose, Aisha is haunted by the absence of her own son who she hopes to bring to the US. As Aisha’s son’s arrival approaches, the young mother is plagued by visions of supernatural presences deep from the nightmarish myths of African folklore.

Nanny’s exploration of the immigrant experience is a fascinating one. Capturing a sense of solidarity with other workers such as fellow African nannies in the park, a warming smile to a pregnant Latin cleaner, or her blossoming romance with Malik, a doorman with proud African roots, Aisha’s world is full of low income workers pursuing a better life. Initially welcoming interactions with Amy suggest that this may be in sight for Aisha – but after repeated failure to pay Aisha or hosts of micro-aggressions, not to mention the wandering eye of patriarch Adam, it is clear that Aisha’s experience with her employers is not a particularly pleasant one.

The gradual unhappiness and tension in the Aisha’s workplace is built up with a neat unease by Jusu as she gradually peels back the veneer of assumed perfection from this clearly toxic work environment. Yet Aisha is trapped in her position, she longs to be reunited with her son and the money is essential in making that happen. Thinly veiled threats from Amy only fuel the tension faced by Aisha – heightened by the stress of her phone calls being unable to get through to her sister who looks after her young son – this adds a real uncomfortable, concerning realism to Nanny.

As the very real domestic horrors of Nanny take place, Jusu finds creative and unsettling ways to depict these in genre form. The manifestation of these traumas is embodied in unsettling mermaid like creature ‘Mami Wata’ and the film’s recurring motif of water (which is dissected as the narrative progresses). This leads to impressive set pieces in the local swimming pool and recurring nightmares of suffocation and flooding which are sharply presented by Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang. Further supernatural chills come in references to Akan folktale character the arachnic Anansi known for his trickery and cunning – this leads to numerous spider motifs used including the toe-curling pre-title scene of a spider crawling into the mouth of Diop’s Aisha.

Diop is a compelling presence navigating the tricky ground between performing against both genre surrealism and grounded realism showcasing the struggles of an immigrant mother. The actress packs the role with a naturalistic conviction, selling this tale of a mother battling the pressures of her existence with the shining beacon of hope that is reunion with her son pushing her through. As the weight of these supernatural manifestations begins to push harder, Diop continues to excel until the film’s poignant and metaphorical final moments.

Nanny is an effectively crafted slice of horror with a powerful social conscious and absorbing sense of realism. The intriguing way it utilises African folklore in its narrative, exploring the challenges of an immigrant mother provide biting originality and plentiful food for thought.

Nanny plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Find out more details here.