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TIFF Review: “Nanny” Proves Pointedly Poignant

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 23rd, 2022

Film poster: “Nanny”

Nanny (Nikyatu Jusu, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.

Though Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, Nanny, sometimes strikes its messaging notes with a heavy hand, the film’s overall design and execution prove mostly mesmerizing. And though the ending rushes through an unspeakable tragedy, inadvertently seeming to minimize its impact, the gravity of the central conflict is never less than intense. Jusu offers a close analysis of the constant hazards faced by immigrants to the United States and how easily their tenuous security can be threatened. This is a story that resonates far beyond the borders of the cinematic frame.

Aisha (a great Anna Diop, Something About Her) is a recent Senegalese arrival in New York City. We will later learn that she has a son, Lamine, living back home with her cousin, and that she hopes to bring him over once she earns the money to do so. As the movie begins, she has just landed a position as a nanny to a white family in Manhattan. The mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan, Saint Judy), walks Aisha through the ins and outs of how to interact with daughter Rose, with special emphasis on meals, since the girls is apparently a picky eater. Soon, satisfied that Aisha is competent, Amy takes off for work.

l-r: Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan in NANNY ©Amazon Studios/Courtesy of TIFF

Rose and her new nanny hit it off, and once Aisha decides to disregard Amy’s food instructions (there will be consequences, rest assured) and serve some homecooked dishes from Senegal, they get along even better. All is good, then, and Aisha even has her own room in the apartment for when she needs to sleep over. Unfortunately, Amy has a habit of asking for overtime and then not paying accordingly. That will prove a challenge. As will the return from abroad of Adam (Morgan Spector, George Russell on HBO’s The Gilded Age series), Amy’s photojournalist husband, who may think he’s on the side of the righteous, covering his office walls with captured images of protests from around the globe, but proves decidedly otherwise.

Before long, as she struggles to maintain composure and continue to send the funds needed for Lamine’s ticket and visa back to Senegal, Aisha begins to experience visions. These usually involve water falling from the ceiling or pulling her down into murky depths; either that or spiders. According to Jusu’s Toronto Film Festival notes, the water represents the African supernatural imagery of Mami Wata, an aquatic spirit calling out to Aisha. Malik (Sinqua Walls, The Blackening), a building doorman who develops a romantic interest in the new nanny, takes her to his grandmother, who senses that these recurring hallucinations hold some deeper meaning. Exactly what they mean, though, will not become clear until the devastating finale.

l-r: Sinqua Walls and Anna Diop in NANNY ©Amazon Studios/Courtesy of TIFF

Filled with evocative scenes of both joy and heartbreak, Nanny only falters when it insists on underlining that which is already evident. Some things happen that only serve to double down on previously established themes. And then there is that distress of the conclusion, details coming fast and furious and then quickly absorbed in the aftermath. On the other hand, life does so frequently go on, no matter how terrible events may be. That much is clear. Still, despite this awkward narrative closure—or perhaps because of it—Nannyremains very much in mind long after its images fade.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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