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Nanny review – striking social horror could use a few more scares

Nikyatu Jusu's stylish debut feature is promising and well-acted by Anna Diop, but a rushed ending ultimately frustrates

“Sundance Horror” has, in recent years, become something of a subgenre all its own that, at its best, has produced some modern classics like The Witch, Hereditary, and His House, but also houses a lot of overwrought and not very scary social dramas with mere hints of the actual horrific. Winner of top honours at this year’s Sundance, Nikyatu Jusu’s striking first feature Nanny falls between these two extremes, exemplifying both the best and worst instincts of this kind of horror – genuinely affecting at times, but under-committed to its scares and unravelled by a really rushed ending.

Anna Diop plays Aisha, a Senegalese woman working in New York as a nanny for the adorable kid of an awful nouveau-riche white couple whose own racism (or at least racial insensitivity) is never far from the surface. Faced with long hours and missed payslips, not to mention the narcissistic neediness of mum Amy (Michelle Monaghan, making for a very effective villain), Aisha sticks it out to raise the money to bring her own young son over from Senegal.

The longer this process is delayed, the more hauntings start to creep into Aisha’s life, assaulting her with nightmares and hallucinations that remind her of the old spirits of West Africa – though whether anything genuinely supernatural is happening is left annoyingly vague. Diop gives a powerful star performance, and her showdowns with Amy carry a discomforting and darkly funny charge that scratches at you without needing any ghosts.

It all ends up feeling like a rather long road to nowhere, though – the climactic set-piece is underwhelming and comes a little too early, leading into an ending that really doesn’t stick the landing and feels a bit like it was lifted from a different film entirely. The cinematography can also be a bit wobbly, especially during daytime exteriors (the smaller budget really makes itself visible in these moments), though there is ultimately enough stylistic flair to mark Jusu out as one to watch. Though it might fall into a few too many of the traps of its genre, Nanny makes for a promising debut.

Nanny was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 25 November.

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