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There’s Riveting Drama Beneath Nanny’s Obligatory Blumhouse Scares

the poster of Baby sister creates the feeling of a very specific and very familiar type of film through an extreme close-up of the face of Aisha, its protagonist. She looks distraught, her features still recognizable but slightly distorted by smudges that look like liquid paint or dripping water. It is easy to imagine this image accompanied by jarring music that draws tension and fear from the stillness, complementing a story about how this woman is undone by the things she has seen. The sign announces that Baby sister is being released by Blumhouse, a studio known primarily for high-concept horror. The motto is “We are haunted by what we leave behind.”

All those signs that Baby sister It’s a horror movie, they’re not false advertising: Writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But he’s visibly less concerned with making the audience jump and jerk than creating resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and babysitter under the control of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements meant to visualize her infighting are never quite coherent.

Right away, the film gives a sense of the stark dynamic between babysitter Aisha (Anna Diop) and her employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The camera frames them both from a distance in one continuous shot, as Amy hands Aisha a large folder with guidelines, contact information, meal plans, and more. Amy isn’t exactly unsympathetic, but the camera position creates a sense of detachment, dampening whatever warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing horrible: a somewhat flashy first impression, an air of entitlement. But Amy then crosses that professional line by asking for a hug. Aisha is briefly surprised, but pleases her boss. Amy doesn’t file the application as a lawsuit, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha was hired to care for Amy’s young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), but she’s in no position to deny the woman in charge of her pay, especially on her first day on the job.

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Aisha (Anna Diop), a dark-skinned woman wearing a bright orange towel, examines herself in a mirror in a dark room in Nanny.

Photo: Prime Video

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Aisha dutifully logs her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s folder, even though her pay is in cash and off the books. She’s cheaper than a documented babysitter, and hardly oblivious to the situation; as an undocumented former schoolteacher, this is simply the best avenue she can find for her skill set. Aisha needs the money: she hopes to bring her youngest son, Lamine, from Senegal. Her absence weighs heavily on her and she is compounded by her profession: while she bonds with, cares for, and generally lavishes attention on Rose, her own child is an ocean away. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine is entirely through her phone, be it confusing video chats or recordings of the moments she missed.

Aisha’s guilt over leaving her son behind manifests in strange visions. The rain is pouring down inside. A distant figure stands some distance away in a lake. The spider legs cast a long shadow that unfurls like a gaping jaw. Aisha is able to identify some of the images, telling Rose stories about Anansi, the spider, and how her small size requires her to take advantage of her cunning to survive. When talking to an older woman (dead pool‘s Leslie Uggams) who is more well-versed in the supernatural, learns 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 him is a mystery.

Hallucinations and wasted time tied to guilt and/or trauma are standard territory for people who go crazy in arthouse movies. By now, a year without one or two movie descendants of the babadook it would feel incomplete. But Baby sister stands out for its visuals, rendered with uncommon skill and springing from folkloric roots far removed from the standard terrors of other shadowy entity-thumping-the-wall movies. 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 an ethereal light. There’s a feeling that the visions might not be so disturbing after all, if only she could understand what they mean.

Aisha (Anna Diop), a dark-skinned woman in a colorful pink patterned top, holds the waist of Rose (Rose Decker), a young blonde Caucasian woman wearing a kitty-ear headband, a silver jacket and a pink tutu, while jump on a bed at babysitter

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Photo: Prime Video

Where another film might have focused exclusively on Aisha’s grief and mental breakdown, Jusu it cares about showing its protagonist trying to live her life and regain some control. She vents to a friend about Lamine’s father’s absence and strikes up a romance with the building’s hunky doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a son of his own. She speaks for herself when her employers don’t pay her and the unpaid overtime starts piling up. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says that he will “advance” the payment to Aisha, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: it’s not an advance if it’s what she already owes him.

Jusu excels at highlighting the awkward power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be strained and complex instead of teetering into overtly sinister territory. There’s no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but their 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 fit her skin well, even when Aisha comments that she is a little tight on her. Adam’s photography graces the apartment in large enlarged prints, and he is eager to talk to Aisha about the themes of his art and his fame: black poverty and conflict. These interactions are superficially reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s awkward “meet the family” moments. Saltbut their truth is ingeniously mundane: their bosses are so comfortable above it that they don’t have to consider their interiority at all.

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This dynamic is so well executed, in fact, that it’s curious that Jusu even bothered dabbling in horror, since it’s far less effective than drama. Aisha’s eerie visions are the weakest part of the film, coming to an abrupt end while raising a recurring question: Will the audience only stand still to watch the social dangers of a Senegalese immigrant if they are promised a few stretches of fearful wandering? for the apartments? Come in?

Horror becomes a narrative crutch when used in this way, as if it’s the only way to purge the typical happily-ever-after expectations of a more mainstream movie. The Oscar bait version of Baby sister is as easy to imagine as the terrifying one suggested by the poster, perhaps retaining Diop’s nuanced lead performance but suffocating it with tearful speeches and a theme of virtue rewarded, where hard work pays off and evil characters see the mistake of their ways or get what is theirs. Horror may really be the only narrative mode that reliably prepares an audience for this downbeat version of the story, but Jusu’s impressive work suffers when he splits his focus and hides his clearer ideas under genre distractions.

Baby sister debuts in theaters on November 23 and will stream on Prime Video on December 16.

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