I have to admit that I was being underwhelmed by Nanny while I was watching it, and started to wonder why so many people had placed it on a few "best of the year" lists. Then I got to the end. I was very impressed by the resolution served up to viewers. But I still wonder why so many people have placed it on a few "best of the year" lists.
Anna Diop stars as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who is hired to care for the daughter of a wealthy couple living in New York City. The couple (played by Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) sometimes seem supportive, but they can just as quickly turn on Aisha. Even when everything is going well, Aisha is keenly aware of how precarious her position is. Her goal is to soon be joined by her young son, which is her motivation for keeping busy in a role that should allow her to save up the money for his air fare.
The feature debut from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, Nanny is an interesting and insightful work. It manages to examine a number of different elements without ever feeling unfocused or overfilled. The cast all do uniformly excellent work, the script manages to underline the tension and unease of the main situation without turning it into ridiculous melodrama, and there are some impressive images making use of the main recurring motifs. But it's lacking something.
Diop is so good in the lead role that I kept wishing for the film around her to be even better. She works well with everyone around her, and that includes young Rose Decker (playing the young girl that she's being paid to look after), but the best scenes show her character being a bit more relaxed, and a bit happier, in the company of a man named Malik (played by Sinqua Walls, who adds just the right touch of light to the darkness). Monaghan and Spector veer between being pleasant and being far too highly-strung, and both feel perfectly cast in their roles.
It's just a shame that it doesn't come together in a completely satisfying way, with Jusu deciding against giving the film a firm tonal/genre identity. There's definitely a growing sense of dread as everything plays out, but Jusu depicts everything in a way that feels as if there's a filter, a layer of protective netting, between the worst possibilities and what viewers are seeing, whether that is the cityscape the characters are moving through or the mental landscape being changed by what is going on in their lives.
I am sure that many will dislike my opinion about this, and may even accuse me of missing some of the layered text and subtext. What can I say? I felt like I was being taken to paddle in a pool I was then not allowed to dive into. This film has depths, but they are depths that Jusu wants you to see from a high, and safe, vantage point. And that changes the perspective, which elicits a different reaction than, for example, being dragged down into those depths and feeling the growing pressure and darkness all around you.
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