Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir-scr Nikyatu Jusu
prd Nikkia Moulterie, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
with Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams, Olamide Candide-Johnson, Jahleel Kamara, Princess Adenike, Zephani Idoko, Mitzie Pratt, Keturah Hamilton
release US/UK 25.Nov.22
22/US Amazon 1h37

monaghan wallis spector
london film fest
raindance film fest

Is it streaming?

diop and decker
Much smarter than your average horror movie, this dramatic thriller adds unsettling internalised layers to a relatively simple story. And writer-director Nikyatu Jusu is more interested in provoking the audience with questions than answering them, so the themes swirl around in resonant waves, leaving us to find our own meaning. It's also sharply well shot and edited, with a terrific cast that brings out involving character details.
In New York, immigrant teacher Aisha (Diop) has taken a job as a nanny to raise funds so she can bring her young son Lamine (Kamara) over from Senegal. Her new young charge is Rose (Decker), daughter of Amy and Adam (Monaghan and Spector), a wealthy couple that is losing touch with each other. Their miscommunication leads Aisha to feel that they are taking advantage of her, even as she bonds tightly with Rose and sparks romance with the family's hot doorman Malik (Walls). But she's also experiencing nightmares relating to folklore from her homeland.
Among visions involving spiders and snakes, Aisha is also visited by a mama wata, a mermaid-like water spirit who seems both menacing and protective. The film skilfully uses subtle effects work to hint at these supernatural elements, even as the plot remains fully grounded in the real world, grappling meaningfully with issues of gender, race and class. This is superbly insinuating filmmaking that gets under the skin, even if it lets everything float lightly without ever providing a big kick.

Expertly understated performances hint at big things the characters are going through off-screen, so each person feels remarkably realistic. At the centre, Diop has terrific presence as a young woman whose life seems to finally be coming together, even as she encounters a new range of obstacles that complicate her goal of reuniting with her son. She's likeable and tough, and when she has finally had it, her explosions of emotion are engaging. In smaller roles, Monaghan, Spector and Walls add vivid textures, dealing with their own issues. And Uggams (as Malik's grandmother) is radiant and riveting.

Jusu cleverly assembles the story with insinuations rather than firm plot points, maintaining a close connection with the growing storm inside Aisha. So even the film's nastier touches feel remarkably haunting and internalised, adding to her stress in stomach-churning ways while deepening the thematic ideas about immigration, casual bigotry and the wealth gap. Without a more sharply aimed final act, the movie feels a little offhanded, never quite getting to its point. But it definitely gets us thinking.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 31.Oct.22

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall