Review by Sean Boelman
It’s exceedingly rare for a horror film to win the top prize at any festival, and so it was a massive surprise when Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance. That said, it is entirely understandable why this movie came out on top, because it is a wonderful exercise in atmosphere and tension.
The film follows an undocumented immigrant working as a nanny for a wealthy family in the Upper East Side as she is forced to confront the terrifying truth behind the American Dream. Lots of movies have explored the immigrant experience, but it’s pretty ingenious to structure it like a psychological horror film as Jusu does.
For much of the first hour or so, the movie is a slow burn, moving along at a measured but deliberate pace. It feels like we are watching this character’s world and psyche unravel, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. It’s never a particularly scary film, although there is some imagery that is very creepy and the whole affair is quite tense.
The movie explores a lot of issues when it comes to the immigrant experience, like the façade that is the American Dream and the way in which white Americans exploit immigrants in need. It’s clear from the dialogue that this is Jusu’s first script, because there are some things that are overt and somewhat sloppy, but it’s also very angry and passionate.
Jusu writes the protagonist in a way that is extremely sympathetic. We get emotionally invested in her story of trying to get reconnected with her son, and forming the parallel to the character’s work as a nanny is a wonderful way of doing so. The supporting characters are far less interesting, but the lead is so compelling that it works nevertheless.
Anna Diop gives a brilliant performance in the leading role that works on the level of both drama and horror. It’s a very vulnerable turn, which makes up for a lot of the issues that the script has. And in the supporting cast, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector give enjoyable performances as her employers.
The best accomplishment in this film is the way in which Jusu builds the atmosphere. The cinematography and score are both extremely haunting in a way that draws the viewer into the character’s psyche. Although some of the effects in the movie aren’t the best, the intent is there to a point that still makes them disturbing and not distracting.
Nanny may have been an unorthodox pick for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but it definitely earns this recognition. It is definitely one of the more successful horror debuts to come out of Sundance in the past few years.
Nanny screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which ran virtually from January 20-30.