Throughout the 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at The Lens will be spotlighting some of their favorite feature films on this year’s festival slate. Our critics have picked can’t-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.
Art-horror films love liminal spaces, those uncanny borderlands of waking life where nothing feels settled and the hidden world presses insistently at the walls. The masterstroke of writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s unnerving feature Nanny lies in its recognition that from the perspective of the immigrant, all spaces are liminal. For Senegalese migrant Aisha (Titans breakout Anna Diop), even the cozy New York apartment she shares with several other West African women feels slightly disconnected from reality. This is partly due to the painful absence of her 6-year-old son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), who is still dwelling in Dakar with their extended family. Aisha hopes to bring the boy stateside before his next birthday, but in the meantime, she is only able to glimpse his bright-eyed little face on laggy, too-infrequent video calls.
Her cramped uptown flat might not be a real home (yet), but it’s more hospitable than the chilly, modernist apartment owned by Aisha’s latest employers, a wealthy White Manhattanite couple who have hired her to care for their young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker). Although working-mom Amy (Michelle Monaghan) at first projects a welcoming demeanor, her anxieties soon mutate into scattered negligence and simmering hostility. Meanwhile, often-absent husband Adam (Morgan Spector) plays the good cop to Amy’s bad: He dotes on Rose, speaks French with Aisha, and is perpetually apologizing for his wife’s umpteenth oversight regarding the nanny’s pay.
Aisha’s initial instinct is to go along to get along with these prickly, privileged Americans, but there may be forces at work here that are more primordial than mundane inter-racial and international tension. Disturbing, watery nightmares intrude on Aisha’s slumber, and tricks of the light play at the periphery of her waking vision. Impossibly, she catches glimpses of Lamine on the street – but it can’t be him, can it? A nascent romance with concierge Malik (Sinqua Walls) seems to promise some respite from these stressors, but his spiritualist grandmother (Leslie Uggams) homes in on the devils that are plaguing Aisha. She speaks of the water spirit Mami Wata and the trickster spider Anansi, slippery beings that can be either wise patrons or cruel monsters.
Jusu is a Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker who made a name on the festival circuit with her genre short films (“Suicide by Sunlight”). In Nanny, she has crafted a moody, self-assured feature debut, a creepshow tale of urban paranoia in the tradition of Roman Polanski. The director exhibits faith in both her lead actress’ nuanced yet wide-ranging performance and the audience’s ability to follow her story’s twisting, ambiguous threads. Though Nanny has one or two shattering narrative reveals, the film is less about sucker-punching the audience with plot twists than slipping them into Aisha’s apprehensive, disjointed headspace. Jusu layers the everyday indignities of racism and classism with scuttling supernatural visitations, creating an insidious feedback loop that drives Aisha toward a precipice. What exactly might lie beyond it is uncertain, but, as Malik’s granny pointedly notes, the fate of Aisha’s American Dream may hinge on one question: “How do you use your rage?”
Viewers seeking a cut-and-dried horror parable about the immigrant experience may be confounded by Nanny, which swirls together social and folk horror in a manner that resists straightforward analysis. Jusu flirts confidently with musty gothic idioms and horror-cinema tropes, but her feature draws on pan-African mythological traditions in which simplistic, binary conceptions of supernatural good and evil are of limited use. Nanny envisions its occult entities as fickle forces of metamorphosis, patron saints of those liminal spaces, eager to direct (or drag) mere mortals from one state of existence to the next. They can be jealous, hungry demons, but – as Aisha eventually learns – they can also be mystic guides on the spiraling path to self-actualization.
Nanny screens at the Galleria 6 Cinema at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 6.