Review: ‘Nanny’ offers a refreshing take on the worker-immigrant experience

Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, NYU alum Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature takes a new approach to portraying the immigrant experience. The film is playing in select theaters and will be made available for streaming on Amazon Prime starting on Dec. 16.

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“Nanny,” directed by NYU alum Nikyatu Jusu, tells the story about a young nanny named Aisha. (Courtesy of Prime Video)

Madeline Kane, Staff Writer

In American pop culture, the immigrant experience is typically portrayed with shaky camera movements, dull and colorless settings, and people who are physically, emotionally and financially exhausted. These storytelling approaches tend to feel detached and speculative. A small movie coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, however, is offering a new way of portraying the immigrant experience. 

In her feature film debut, “Nanny,” director-writer Nikyatu Jusu — a daughter of immigrants — offers a troubling and emotionally charged perspective on an experience that one in seven American residents can relate to: the struggle of settling into the United States as a foreigner.

Classified as a horror and psychological film, “Nanny” begins with a young woman lying in her bed at night, unable to fall asleep. Suddenly, water rushes into the bed and a large spider crawls onto her face before she screams in fear. The woman is a young nanny named Aisha (Anna Diop), an immigrant from Senegal who’s taking care of Rose (Rose Decker). 

Rose’s mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is an affluent Manhattan woman whose anxiety and control issues make it difficult for Aisha to do her job. As Amy’s husband Adam (Morgan Spector) is frequently absent, it is Aisha who adopts the primary responsibility for Rose’s care. Frequently demanding her to work overtime, Amy also fails to pay Aisha properly and acknowledges her own struggles.

Early in the film, the audience sees how close Aisha is to Rose. Aisha teaches her new vocabulary in her native French, participates in Rose’s tea parties and cooks Rose meals that remind her of her home in Senegal. This tender relationship between the two is in stark contrast to the one Rose shares with her mother. Amy is critical of many choices Aisha makes; sometimes, Aisha stands up for herself against Amy — and occasionally, Adam — and refuses to be taken advantage of. 

While being a mother figure to Rose, Aisha is a mother herself. Her young son, Lamine, is still in Senegal. Having moved to America alone, Aisha has almost finished saving enough money for Lamine to travel to the country with her. Living an ocean apart, Aisha and Lamie’s only way of communicating has been through video chats and phone calls. While these correspondences bring joy and relief for Aisha, a layer of guilt still lingers for having left her son behind. Aisha didn’t move to America to raise another mother’s kids — she did it with the hopes of giving her son a better future. 

“Nanny” spins the immigrant experience in a unique direction by preserving it as Aisha’s story — one that is seen through her perspective. Through Jusu’s excellent writing and Diop’s magnetic performance, she has authority in how her story is told. While her nanny gig takes up a lot of her time and energy, it isn’t what Aisha’s life revolves around. Amy, Rose and Adam are merely seen as a means to an end — to pay rent, to bring Lamine to America. 

Through Jusu’s personal experiences and dedicated research, “Nanny” is special for its focus on how immigrants attempt to carry parts of their cultures with them to the United States. Aisha lives and connects with fellow West African immigrants, and finds herself falling in love with Malik (Sinqua Walls), the doorman in Amy and Adam’s building. A lovely chemistry develops, as their first date establishes a clear, effortless connection between the two. 

When Malik takes Aisha to meet his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), a connection also forms between the two women. Her knowledge of West African folklore being immense, Kathleen uses her spiritual intuition to help Aisha understand the visions of her playing with her son, which have impacted her both when asleep and while she is awake. Through the folklore of the African diaspora, Kathleen infers that Aisha’s visions are telling her a dark message — one that will directly impact the young mother’s life.

The periodic flashbacks Aisha sees are beautiful and profound. For Aisha, water represents panic, chaos and trauma. The symbol recurs throughout the film, and Rina Yang’s cinematography plays with a dark blue color palette throughout. The film’s scenes feel gloomy, yet full of life.

A thematically rich story with hidden meanings, “Nanny” is a refreshing take on the immigrant experience. In telling a story centered around the subject’s own thoughts and emotions, Nikyatu Jusu has already made a name for herself with her debut feature. 

Contact Madeline Kane at [email protected]