Sundance films have the reputation for following a pattern. Take last year’s Best Picture winner “CODA” for example. The somewhat bloated, endlessly endearing drama about a high schooler’s dream of attending a performing arts college but struggling with the weight of leaving her deaf family members behind, is the perfect example of the commonly stereotyped “Sundance film.” They play heavy on emotions and often attempt to prop up weightier material to land heartfelt jabs in the third act. Some call these storytelling techniques cheap, even if they are often effective. In a way, Nikyatu Jusu’s Jury Prize-winning experimental horror trip “Nanny” attempts to both subvert these preconceived expectations, and still have its emotional bearings pinned down in an exhilarating finale.
And while it doesn’t quite come together in a package that is particularly neat and digestible, “Nanny” is certainly a commendable effort for its successful portrayal of emotional innerworkings for those immigrating to the United States – all played to the backdrop of American carelessness and cynicism acted out by two unpleasant and snide parents. “Nanny” is a lot, especially for a film barely scratching over 90 minutes, but it rewards the time and patience you give it.
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The story’s simplified plot (because if I tried to outline the entire story-web, we’d be here for a while) starts with undocumented immigrant Aisha (played by the wonderful Anna Diop), who lands a job nannying for a wealthier Manhattan couple. As she begins to collect money for the upcoming arrival of her son from Senegal, terrifying visions and occurrences start to take over her dreams and her reality.
With this structure, there is quite a bit of juggling director Nikyatu Jusu has to manage in order to keep up with the pacing. At times, she succeeds effortlessly, like the direct and simple opening scenes that lead right into her introduction to the family she’ll be nannying. At other times, “Nanny” can feel disjointed. The film tries to balance every aspect of Aisha’s personality, and it’s difficult to package her personal relationships to her son and her love interest Malik (played by Sinqua Walls) in with a film that also displays the day-to-day fragmentation she has with the couple she works for.
It’s a messy film in the second act, and it leads to my biggest criticism for “Nanny.” There’s no forward momentum. There isn’t an effortless pacing to it, and maybe that is a lot to expect for a directorial debut, but it’s hard not to feel the story drag and beg for the disturbing imagery to re-focus the viewer. Jusu is an incredibly talented visionary – many of the set pieces are finely crafted and the aquatic images ooze with beauty and serenity. I just wish she simplified the story to let these images breathe more. Aisha and Malik’s encounter is perhaps the best scene of the film, but it washes away far too quickly and never has a satisfying ending in a third act far too concerned with the handful of other plotlines.
In a way, “Nanny” feels like a filmmaker getting as many of her ideas onto the paper as possible just in case she doesn’t get another chance. It’s visually haunting and striking, and worth a watch for that on its own. But it is also clunky in its delivery and doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to sink in by its gonzo third act.
But it still stands above much of the Sundance content I’ve seen this year. I imagine I would have had a far more positive approach to this review had I seen it in comparison with those films to start off the year, but when it’s dropping in the midst of some heavy hitters for awards season, expectations grow larger. I liked “Nanny,” but I can’t help but expect that Nikyatu Jusu will simplify the formula with her next outing and deliver a film that punches even deeper.