There’s a fridge in the apartment of Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), the couple that Aisha (Anna Diop) comes to work for in “Nanny,” tending to their young daughter Rose, but you’d never notice it. Hidden behind wooden panels, it’s filled with health-conscious pre-packed meals that Amy expects Aisha to dole out to her daughter while she’s away at her job – Adam is never there because of his, traveling as a photographer – and the ultra-modern flat they share in New York has any traces of traditional domesticity removed as life carries on without any suggestion they need sustenance or help. It’s no wonder Rose takes an instant liking to Aisha, who can’t afford to hide her needs and has an authenticity that now seems to elude her parents, and suddenly starts eating because the jollof rice she makes from her native Senegal actually has flavor to it.
Keeping that flavor is what becomes the hard part in Nikatsu Jusu’s gripping thriller, a slow descent into the hell of losing one’s identity when the need to make a living deprives Aisha of much of a life. Separated from her six-year-old son Lamine, who she can’t take care of unless she’s paid to watch Rose, Aisha is slowly submerged into the psychodrama of the couple she’s working for rather than attending to her own needs. Although she’s told by her auntie, this isn’t the kind of job that grows on trees, it’s evident from the start that she’ll have her hands full with Amy and Adam, who spend more time apart than together, not only a sign of a marriage with its issues, but adding to hers when the two will put off any discussion of her pay on the other, making any straight answers hard to come by. With Rose so clearly attached to her, she can take a hard line periodically against last-minute requests for overtime without risking the job, but when she also needs the steady income if she’s ever going to be able to have Lamine live with her full-time, she’s got her hands full with Amy and Adam far more than she’d like.
It isn’t just that Aisha feels she doesn’t have the space to breathe, but that she’ll be inundated and subsumed by the dominant culture as an immigrant to the U.S. and forever swimming as hard as she can just to stay afloat in an economy where any possibility of rising seems impossible. Jusu dives directly into these metaphors with aplomb, having Aisha prone to drifting off into nightmarish fantasies in which she’s being drowned and Rose’s tendency to wander off, besides inducing anxiety, would seem to reflect a lack of control that she has over anything. Some stability would appear to come in the form of Malik (Sinqua Wallis), the doorman at Amy and Adam’s building who has a son around Lamine’s age, and the way Jusu brings him into the story is especially savvy when he’s only briefly introduced at first to suggest he is one of a long line of many, including Aisha, who is there to serve the likes of Amy and Adam, yet has a far richer life when he’s off the clock, not coming into the spotlight until well into the film. He also has a grandmother (Leslie Uggams) who happens to be a priestess who senses there is something special about Aisha.
Indeed, there certainly is about Diop, who makes all the subtle codeswitching Aisha has to do seem like second nature, and to compliment the dynamic performance at the center, Jusu creates a vibrant world around her with exquisite production and costume design from Jonathan Guggenheim and Charlese Antoinette Jones, respectively, that instantly conveys the contrast between her professional and personal lives, and cinematographer Rina Yang’s bold lighting choices where the mix of intense greens, purples and blues can feel refreshing or surreal or often both, depending on the scene. There is never a dull moment in “Nanny” on any level, and removed from the specific context of the story, Jusu is so attuned with the notion of losing personal distinctions in the face of mass culture and able to express it viscerally that the film reaches well beyond its trenchant socioeconomic observations to get at more existential concerns. Aisha may spend the entirety of “Nanny” worried that she’ll lose all track of who she is, but with her debut bound to win you over with its sheer force of personality alone, Jusu has no such dilemma as a filmmaker, turning the overwhelming into the wholly immersive.
“Nanny” will screen virtually at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th for a 24-hour period beginning at 8 am MT.