Nanny Review: Blumhouse’s immigrant story has a horror problem
November 25, 2022
The poster for Nurse creates the feeling of a very specific, very familiar type of film through an extreme close-up of the face of Aisha, its lead. She looks distressed, her features still recognizable but slightly distorted by smudges that look like runny paint or dripping water. It’s easy to imagine this image accompanied by discordant music that mines tension and fear from the silence, complementing a story of how this woman is undone by the things she’s seen. The poster announces it Nurse is published by Blumhouse, a studio primarily known for high-concept horror. The slogan is “We are haunted by what we leave behind.”
All the hints about it Nurse is a horror film is not false advertising: Writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the garb of modern horror to shape the story. But she is visibly less concerned with serving up jumps and shocks to the audience than she is with creating a resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and nanny under the thumb of a wealthy white family, but the elements of horror meant to visualize her inner struggles never quite connect.
Immediately, the film gives a sense of the rigid dynamic between nanny Aisha (Anna Diop) and her employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The camera frames them both from a distance in one unbroken shot as Amy hands Aisha a large binder with directions, contact information, meal plans and more. Amy isn’t exactly unfriendly, but the camera position creates a sense of removal that cools the warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing terrible – a somewhat flashy first impression, a sense of entitlement. But Amy then steps over the professional line by asking for a hug. Aisha is briefly surprised, but she obliges her boss. Amy doesn’t present the request as a demand, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha was hired to take care of Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but she can hardly refuse the woman in charge of her salary – especially on her first day at work.
Aisha dutifully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s binder, even though her payment is in cash and otherwise off the books. She’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s hardly unaware of the situation; as an undocumented former school teacher, this is simply the best path she can find for her skills. Aisha needs the money – she hopes to bring her young son, Lamine, over from Senegal. His absence weighs heavily on her and is exacerbated by her profession: while she bonds with, nurtures and generally pays attention to Rose, her own son is an ocean away. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine is entirely through her phone, in either garbled video chats or recordings of the moments she missed.
Aisha’s guilt over leaving her son manifests itself in strange visions. The rain trickles down indoors. A distant figure stands at a distance in a lake. Spider legs cast a long shadow that unfolds like an open stomach. Aisha is able to identify some of the images and tells Rose stories about the spider Anansi and how his small size requires him to use his cunning to survive. When talking to an older woman (Deadpool‘s Leslie Uggams), who is more versed in the supernatural, she finds that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to communicate something to her. Aisha is fluent in several languages and teaching them to Rose is part of her job. But whatever these mythical figures are trying to tell her is a mystery.
Hallucinations and lost time tied up in guilt and/or trauma are standard territory for people freaking out in arthouse movies. Gradually a year without one or two cinematic descendants of Babadook would feel incomplete. But Nurse stands out for its imagery, realized with uncommon skill and grown out of folkloric roots far removed from other films’ standard-issue horrors of shadowy entities pounding on the wall. While Aisha’s visions unsettle her and are meant to unsettle viewers by association, they are subdued and beautiful in the way they bathe her in ethereal light. There’s a sense that the visions might not be so disturbing after all, if only she could figure out what they mean.
Where another film might have focused solely on Aisha’s pain and mental unraveling, Jusumakes sure to show its protagonist trying to live his life and wrest some control. She confides in a friend about Lamine’s absent father and begins a romance with the building’s dashing doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. She speaks for herself as her employers fail to pay her and unpaid overtime begins to pile up. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says he’ll “advance” Aisha the payment, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: It’s not an advance if it’s what she already owes.
Jusu excels at highlighting the uncomfortable power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be tense and complex rather than veering into overtly creepy territory. There is no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but her discomfort with the liberties they take and the boundaries they cross is always palpable. Amy lends Aisha a dress at one point, insisting that it suits her skin, though Aisha notes that it is a bit tight. Adam’s photography adorns the apartment in large, blown-up prints, and he is eager to talk to Aisha about the subjects of his art and his fame: black poverty and strife. These interactions are superficially reminiscent of the awkward “meet the family” moments in Jordan Peele’s Go outbut the truth about them is wisely mundane: her employers are so comfortable with her that they need not consider her inner self at all.
This dynamic is actually so well done that it’s strange that Jusu evenbothered to dabble in horror, considering how much less effective it is than the drama. Aisha’s eerie visions are the weakest part of the film, building to an abrupt ending while raising a recurring question: Will an audience sit still to see the social dangers of a Senegalese immigrant if they’re promised a few stretches of timid apartment walk in between?
Horror becomes a storytelling crutch when used in this way, as if it’s the only way to eradicate the typical happy expectations of a more conventional film. The Oscar-bait version of Nurse is as easy to imagine as the terrifying one the poster suggests, and perhaps retains Diop’s nuanced lead performance, but smothers it in weepy speeches and a theme of virtue rewarded, where hard work pays off, and the villainous characters either see the flaw in their weigh or get what’s coming to them. Horror may indeed be the only narrative mode that reliably prepares audiences for this pessimistic version of the story, but Jusu’s otherwise impressive work suffers when she splits the focus and hides her brightest ideas under genre distractions.
Nurse debuts in theaters on November 23rd and streams on Prime Video on December 16th.