Babysitter horror movie has plenty of promise, but not enough scares

Nanny ★★½
(TBC) 98 minutes

Make a low-budget drama about an undocumented immigrant working as a nanny in New York City, and your audience may be relatively small. Call it a horror movie, however, and you can reach two audiences rather than just one – though you run the risk that neither will end up satisfied.

Aisha (Anna Diop) finds work caring for the young daughter of a wealthy white couple in Nanny.Credit:Courtesy of Prime Video

This is the gamble US writer-director Nikyatu Jusu takes with her first feature Nanny, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The statuesque Anna Diop stars as Aisha, a former teacher from Senegal who finds work caring for the young daughter of Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), a wealthy white couple on the Upper East Side.

Aisha is a very competent nanny to Rose (Rose Decker) and her manner with her employers is entirely professional. Still, from the outset there are hints of tension in this necessarily unequal relationship – arising, for instance, from the fact that Aisha has to be paid in cash, and that the tightly wound but slightly scatty Amy doesn’t always remember to do so.

There are other things going on in Aisha’s life: she has a young son of her own, and is saving up for the day when he can join her in the US. Midway through the film, she also acquires a boyfriend, Malik (Sinqua Walls), although it appears they don’t get to see much of each other given how often Aisha is required to work overtime.

This isn’t a super-stylised movie, but it’s visually distinctive: the camera is often just below eye level, looking up at the characters and lending their interactions an unusual degree of gravity. A more familiar, even cliched visual device is the contrast between the cool, sterile look of Amy and Adam’s apartment, with bluish abstract paintings hung on grey walls, and the brighter colours associated with Aisha when she’s out on the town.

Aisha’s idealised romance with Malik (Sinqua Walls) seems to belong to another film.Credit:Courtesy of Prime Video

The basic elements of Nanny have a lot of promise, but they’re not woven together very convincingly. Most of the tension arises from the portrayal of a very mundane nightmare: trying to survive financially while putting up with the whims of unreliable employers.

But there’s an apparent supernatural dimension to the story too, linked to the West African folktales Aisha reads aloud to Rose, including those about the trickster spider Anansi. The suggestion is planted that Aisha may share something of Anansi’s amorality, but Jusu doesn’t carry through on it in a manner likely to satisfy horror fans.

Aisha’s idealised romance with Malik seems to belong to another film again. And that’s to say nothing of Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who helpfully interprets the plot in the manner of a Hollywood script assessor or cultural studies scholar.

As she explains to Aisha over a cup of tea, figures like Anansi “challenge the dominant order, subverting it through chaos, anarchy, creative energy”. Whether Jusu really wanted to make a horror movie or not, these are qualities which Nanny could have used significantly more of.

Nanny is available on Prime Video from December 16.

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