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Thicker Than Water

Sundance Institute

Nanny (2022)

Horror fiction can resonate with dark social undercurrents before the same tensions break out in mainstream venues; it's one of the qualities that keep the genre invigorating. Once those tensions are front-page news, though, using them in a horror film can be a Catch 22. Hammer them head-on with blood and violence and the hook just seems familiar; take an oblique sideways angle and you might not be giving the mood of the moment due weight. Nikyatu Jusu's "Nanny" does a little of both, a handsome and well-acted story of immigrant sadness and the spirits duly unleashed, appropriately angry at the indignities foisted onto working class mothers but not able to call down a thunderbolt to smash the situation.

Aisha (Anna Diop), in need of money so she can bring her son to the States from her native Senegal, gets a job as nanny to affluent New York couple Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). That the three characters all have names with the same initial is the kind of detail that should really pay off somewhere down the line, but any parallels are downplayed compared to the fact that Amy and Adam both find ways to be unpleasant to Aisha: One is a controlling scold who never manages to pay on time and the other seems queasily intimate. Supernatural forces start to gather around Aisha, who has nightmares of torrential floods indoors and spider-creatures in her bedroom. Her new boyfriend's grandmother, attuned to the ways of the old country, speaks of Anansi the spider and Mami Wata the water spirit, symbols of resistance and refusal to be ruled.

How and why these spirits take an interest in Aisha and her son compels the film to focus on those two in isolation of the social situation it originally put them in. Although there are fine grace notes, like the other African nannies gathering in the park to gossip energetically, the meat of the story initially seems to be the relationship between Aisha and the child she's nannying, Rose (Rose Decker), an immediate affection across the ethnic and economic distance that clearly drives the prim Amy nuts. Then the actual motor of the climax turns out to be something else, something which isn't ultimately all that far from a "Twilight Zone" episode. Ms. Diop has lately been occupying herself in the superhero series "Titans," where her alien princess made the young male members of the Batman family standing next to her look seem pretty pallid. She carries "Nanny" effortlessly, but that's partly because it isn't much of a struggle.


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