In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, a Senegalese domestic worker struggles to maintain her sanity while caring for the white child of a wealthy NYC family and scraping together money to emigrate her own son to her new home. It’s essentially an atmospheric horror update to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the second one I’ve seen this year after the South African apartheid horror Good Madam. I personally preferred Good Madam, but Nanny earned better reviews and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I’m out of sync with the consensus. I suspect that’s because Nanny is less of a proper Horror Movie, landing the same accolades as an important “social thriller” that Get Out earned outside of horror circles in 2017 (in a way no other Blumhouse productions have in the years since, until now). It’s an immigration story first & foremost, neatly containing all of its supernatural menace in its frequent nightmare & hallucination sequences in a way that the more straight-forward body possession story Good Madam does not. Whichever spooky revision of Black Girl you prefer, it’s undeniably cool that they both exist, and remarkable that their distribution paths converged on the festival circuit this year – Nanny premiering locally at New Orleans Film Fest and Good Madam premiering at Overlook.
Comparisons aside, Nanny mostly holds together as a sharply tense, surprisingly funny domestic drama about working class exploitation, with plenty of spooky window dressing to maintain an eerie mood. Heavily referencing African folklore figures like the arachnid trickster-god Anansi and the alluring water spirit Mami Wata, Jusu easily establishes a dense visual language in the film’s plentiful nightmare sequences & daytime hallucinations. Spiders, mirrors, snakes, and mermaids creep into the frame at almost every turn, disrupting the labor exploitation story at the film’s core in violent jolts of surrealist imagery. Highlighting that labor exploitation is the main point, though, and whatever supernatural scares accompany it are only there to provide texture. With a few scattered edits, Nanny could easily be reconfigured into a standard Sundance drama about an undocumented worker’s grim daily routine sacrificing her own familial bonds to hold a wealthy family together for petty cash. If anything, removing the supernatural horror elements might have left more room to dwell in the moments of discomfort, heartbreak, and rebirth in the film’s rushed ending, which would’ve been much more emotionally effective if the audience were allowed to fully sink into it.
Speaking generally, I’m happy that horror movies are starting to earn festival prestige & awards-season accolades instead of being siphoned off as disposable straight-to-streaming #content (which accounts for a lot of Blumhouse’s output these days). Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance feels a little like Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though. Technically, it’s an industry win for horror, but it’s such a safe, cleaned-up, presentable version of horror that it doesn’t leave much room for the victory to be repeated. I would need an actual, physical intrusion of a devious spider-god or killer mermaid into the “real world” to get excited about what this movie’s success means for the prominence of the genre on awards ballots & festival red carpets. As is, I get the sense that Jusu is much more interested in the Dardennes-style economic drama she gets to tell outside those horror elements, which were more of a funding & marketing hook than the main purpose of her story. Thankfully, the horror industry is booming right now with or without festival accolades, so I can find what I’m personally looking for in stories like these plenty other places: Good Madam, Good Manners, His House, Zombi Child, I Am Not a Witch, etc., etc., etc.