Anna Diop gives a powerful performance in the horror drama “Nanny,” coming soon to Prime Video.
The AFI Film Festival kicked off in earnest Wednesday with the premiere of Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me. The documentary of the pop sensation was directed by Alex Keshishian (“Madonna: Truth or Dare”). My first day at the festival was a double feature of female-directed genre pictures. Nanny, directed by Nikyata Jusu, and Piaffe, directed by Ann Oren. Both played with horror conventions in interesting ways to tell two very different stories. One deals with a complicated, bifractured tale of motherhood and sacrifice. The other dramatizes pleasure in odd, yet titilating ways. While both tell different stories and have different tones, one film was more successful than the other in marrying tone and storytelling into a satisfying package.
So which one was more successful? Find out after the jump…
Nanny (Dir: Nikyata Jusu)
The relationship between a nanny and their employer family has been explored in many different movies before, mostly in dramas. However, first time feature director Nikyata Jusu takes that relationship and turns it into a high wire horror drama anchored by a tremendous lead performance by Anna Diop.
Diop plays Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who takes a job as a nanny for an off kilter New York family in order to earn enough money to send for her own boy from Senegal to join her. Things are going well for Aisha. The child, Rose (Rose Decker), loves her cooking and is a quick learner at French, which Aisha is teaching her. Rose’s parents are another story. Her mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is a stressed girl boss who wants to pal around with Aisha, but conveniently forgets to pay her. Meanwhile, her husband Adam (Morgan Spector) feels like the guy you should have your guard up around. He’s nice enough on the surface, but harbors resentment towards his wife that bleeds out in uncomfortable ways. Aisha tries to compartmentalize the job and her personal goals, but soon her two worlds come colliding in ways she can’t fully reckon with.
The titular role makes or breaks the film. Luckily, Anna Diop is a revelation. Aisha is under no illusion of the American dream. Living in America will provide her son a chance at a better life, but the roads are not paved with goals and dreams. Diop manages to make Aisha’s even-keeled numbness compelling. For so much of the movie, she swallows disappointment and lets micro-aggressions roll off her back. The few jabs she pulls resonate loudly because we’ve watched her control seeth for so much of the film. However, it’s not a movie just about a woman scowling her way through a job. That would be too easy and one note. A budding relationship with a doorman named Malik (Sinqua Walls) gives Aisha a chance to hope for a more normal, familial life once her son makes his way stateside.
Horror is an incredibly versatile genre that can be used to visually and emotionally connect an audience to visceral, complex emotions. Nanny definitely has a lot to say and the third act uses horror tropes to dramatize the responsibilities and guilt that comes with motherhood, be it biological or part of a job description. Yet, it never feels fully congealed to the film’s overall vision. In fact, the genre feels like an afterthought for over an hour in the 99 minute film. That’s not necessarily a damning critique. It’s merely a note for an exciting up and coming writer/director. If anything, Nanny made me excited for the emerging talent that is writer/director Nikyatu Jusu. She clearly has an evocative visual eye and can marry it to clear, wrenching, understandable emotions. B
Nanny is distributed by Amazon Studios. It will released theatrically on 11/23 and on Prime Video 12/16.
A folley artist starts to become one with her subject (a horse) in the new film “Piaffe.”
Piaffe (Dir: Ann Oren)
We all want to be good at our jobs. There are just some lengths not all of us would go to. Eva (Simone Bucio) takes over a foley artist job after her sibling, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), is hospitalized. The end result of the antidepressant commercial, which prominently features a horse, is a comical mess. The director, styled in a preposterously funny platinum bowl cut, chews her out for the work and advises that she get to learn horses. Eva takes his suggestion and visits horse stables and spends hours staring at the horse within the commercial clip. Soon, she spots a protrusion in her lower back that begins to resemble a horse tail.
Rather than go the body horror route, visual artist turned director Ann Oren instead focuses on Eva’s pleasure as it relates to this new appendage. Once it grows to be a full mane, she seeks out a botanist (Sebastian Rudolph) who has a curious attraction to her horse tail. The two begin a sexual relationship that is beautiful in its oddness and carnality. The way Oren models their initial tryst echos some of Pedro Almodovar’s boldest use of color to signify pleasure.
On a scene by scene basis, Piaffe is a beguiling and strange comedy about a woman enjoying a change in her body. Unfortunately, as a narrative film, it falls short. There’s no dramatic propulsion that moves the story forward, with only the mean director being a force of opposition. While stylistic, the color flares and quick cuts that Oren chooses obfuscate and frustrate, more than draw us into this world. There’s skill here, but it feels misguidedly deployed. C-