Several unnerving things happen to Senegalese nanny Aisha (Anna Diop). Babysitwhether it concerns visions of creepy crawling spiders and knife accidents, or encounters with a mythical creature that promises damnation and/or rebirth.
While those incidents may be scary for the young single mother, they are much less so for the audience of Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut. Babysit doesn’t so much straddle the line between immigrant drama and supernatural nightmare as it refuses to commit to any of those lanes. Remarkable about its domestic setting, but flat and plain when it comes to terror, it’s the kind of work that strives to be “exalted horror” – and in the process ultimately embodies much of what’s wrong with that genre approach.
Despite being produced by Blumhouse, Babysit (in theaters Nov. 23; on Prime Video Dec. 16) has no interest in seriously shaking nerves. Instead, it uses familiar creepy maneuvers to create an atmosphere of ominous foreboding and fear that’s in keeping with the protagonist’s mindset. Aisha has left her homeland for a better life in New York and she hopes to take her son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) with her once she earns enough money.
To do so, she takes a job nannying for Rose (Rose Decker), a young man from Manhattan whose mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is a bumbling-friendly professional and whose father, Adam (Morgan Spector), is a war correspondent. . photographer whose office is decorated with his snaps – most notably, one of a young black firefighter screaming in defiant rage before a raging conflagration. Both parents are more dissatisfied than appearances suggest, and so is Rose, a cheerful girl who is not interested in eating the wholesome, pre-packaged food neatly arranged on the shelves of her refrigerator.
That problem is solved somewhat covertly when Rose is shown to be intrigued by Aisha’s homemade Senegalese dishes, and they quickly form a close bond. While Adam is happy about this, Amy instinctively sees it as a threat to her maternal bond, and the ensuing friction is one of the many ways in which Babysit identifies and exploits modern household dynamics for tension.
Adding to that fraught atmosphere is the fact that Adam and Amy are far from in love thanks to Adam’s lothario tendencies, which contrasts with Aisha’s growing affair with Malik (Sinqua Walls), a compassionate apartment building employee whom she begins dating.
In addition, Aisha’s adoration of Lamine – whom she has trouble talking to on the phone, and who seemingly holds a grudge over his mother’s absence and unfulfilled promises of reunion – is the polar opposite of Amy and Amy’s generally detached, unemotional parenting method. Adam.
Babysit understands the many forces at play in this scenario, and reinforces them by gradually making Aisha become more resentful of Amy’s failure to pay her on time and Adam’s fake helpful responses to her concerns. Class and race are both unspoken factors that director Jusu nevertheless emphasizes, via blooming lighting that accentuates Aisha’s dark complexion in this pristine white enclave.
Nestled somewhere inside Babysit is an intriguing exploration of the ways in which immigrant child caretakers are simultaneously welcomed into, yet fundamentally separated from, the homes and families that hire them, and when it chooses to navigate those hallways, Jusu’s film remains fairly solid.
All too often Babysit masquerades as a proper horror movie – something it most certainly isn’t, at least in terms of building and maintaining suspense, implying legitimate danger, or conjuring up memorably disturbing imagery.
Aisha is introduced sleeping on and under a sheet that becomes covered in water, and slumbers and water motifs run rampant throughout the rest of her ordeal. At a playground, Aisha thinks she sees Lamine standing in a shower. Rain pours from the ceiling of the bedroom Aisha uses while staying the night at Amy and Adam’s apartment. She is plagued by flashes of herself curled up in a fetal position in a full bathtub. And she almost drowns in a public swimming pool, in which she is visited by a Mami Wata, a mermaid-like ghost who, like the “trickster” spider Anansi, is a figure from West African folklore who wants to hurt or destroy her. what wisdom wants to reveal. she can’t quite make it out.
The Mami Wata is explained by Malik’s psychic grandmother (Leslie Uggams), and his presence further blurs the already blurred line between Aisha’s conscious and unconscious reality. However, Jusu does nothing to make that blur unsettling, telegraphing every pedestrian dream sequence and suggesting no real threat that could harm Aisha. Even worse, Aisha’s waterlogged hallucinations, generally mistaken for Lamine, are glaring hints about the tragedy that awaits her, so that it’s impossible not to always be three steps ahead of the proceedings.
Diop successfully evokes Aisha’s sense of anguished displacement and her aversion to having to put up with exploitation for the sake of her son. But the character’s ominous encounters and calamities are leaden, never raising anyone’s heartbeat—or, for that matter, complicating the film’s overarching portrayal of disruption and despair.
Babysit is too busy expressing terrors intellectually to shock or surprise. Uggams’ character thinks it’s twice as fitting to explain the Mami Wata, but the monster – spied mainly in dark shadows – has little personality and serves only a symbolic purpose emphasized by a finale that races through the trauma it has suffered worked, as well as the rejuvenating happily ever after that follows in its wake.
Jusu treats Amy and Adam’s (and their upper class friends’) attitudes to race in a similarly hurried way, nodding to those issues so vaguely that they have no impact. The same can also be said about Monaghan’s performance as Amy, a two-dimensional workaholic whose difficulties at home and in the office—which, while attempting to bond with Aisha, are revealed to include misogynistic boyhood pressure—comes off as half-hearted. -fried.
in the end, Babysit raises a large number of promising ideas, but says little about them. All the while, it has plenty of empathy for its protagonist, whose journey to acceptance and healing requires navigating a landscape of transgressions big and small, but not many fears that could make her story memorable.