Actress Anna Diop gives standout performance as an undocumented migrant in New York


Source: Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Dir/scr: Nikyatu Jusu. US. 2022. 97 mins

Nikyatu Jusu’s accomplished debut feature Nanny uses the precarious life of an undocumented Senegalese woman in New York to explore a wide range of issues from the personal to the political and the supernatural. The combination of sensitively handled character drama and slow-burning horror genre tropes builds into an intriguing tale of survival and empowerment with a standout central performance from Anna Diop. A Sundance world premiere where it won the coveted US dramatic competition, buzz should generate around the film with theatrical potential.

It has the assured feel of something that has been thought through, refined and rounded

Previously at Sundance with her short Suicide By Sunlight (2019), Jusu developed Nanny through the IFP Project Forum and the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs. It has the assured feel of something that has been thought through, refined and rounded. A lot of ground is covered but Jusu retains command of the disparate elements.

We meet Aisha (Diop) as she is about to start a new position as a nanny. She will take care of Rose (Rose Decker), daughter of Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). Aisha is working to provide a better life for her six-year-old son Lamine who remains in Senegal. The two mothers are worlds apart: Amy’s life is one of wealth and privilege, Aisha’s one of struggle and uncertainty. Production designer Jonathan Guggenheim punches up the contrasts. Amy and Adam’s abode is a large, clinical open-plan apartment full of glass, sunlight, sharp-edges and a dream kitchen space with a massive island and a fridge stocked like a small supermarket. Aisha shares a homely flat that seems enveloped in a warming sunshine mustard glow and furnished for comfort and sanctuary.

There is an instant bond between Aisha and Rose that sparks jealousy in a mother who starts to feel excluded. There is a great contrast in the way that Amy,  with all her resources, is prepared to delegate the care of her daughter to a stranger whilst Aisha feels every moment of her separation from Lamine.

Jusu allows us to enter fully into Aisha’s world as she becomes an essential part of Rose’s life. She is always made aware that she is an employee at the beck and call of parents whose fraying marriage is a source of conflict. “They own me, I have no life,” she tells one friend. Layering up the elements of Aisha’s life makes her a complex character. She is prepared to make sacrifices for her family and her chance to grab the brass ring of the American Dream. When she finds romance with doorman Malik (a charming Sinqua Walls), it feels as if her future is starting to fall into place. Malik’s sympathetic grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) is a psychic who senses that something else is going on. “How do you use your rage?”, she asks. “Is it your superpower or your Kryptonite?”

Anna Diop is such a potent screen presence that Aisha’s everyday life is involving enough to carry a feature film. But the supernatural element almost feels like a distraction or one ingredient too many for the film to incorporate. Music designed to stretch the nerves creates the anticipation of something scary coming down the track. Nightmare images of giant spiders are matched by water as a recurring motif glimpsed in flooded rooms, sinister swimming pools and murky rivers. Ultimately, the question of whether Aisha may be losing her mind or tangling with African water spirit Mami Wata is successfully folded into a bigger picture without overbalancing the other elements.

Nanny focuses on the guilt of absence and the unsung sacrifices that migrant mothers make for the generations who follow them. Along the way, it also manages to touch on social inequality, the dubious call of the American Dream and the realisation that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. One of its pleasures is the way Aisha endures and takes charge of her life, showing her disapproval of Amy’s approach to parenting or rejecting Adam’s casual advances. Her hard-won empowerment is the heart of the story and is expertly captured by the dynamic Anna Diop.

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Topic Studios; Linlay Productions

International sales: CAA.

Producers: Nikkia Moulterie, Daniela Taplin Lundberg

Cinematography: Rina Yang

Editing: Robert Mead

Production design: Jonathan Guggenheim

Music: Tanerelle, Bartek Gliniak

Main cast: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Leslie Uggams