Correction: not in the way you might expect. The clueless privilege on display in the feature debut of writer-director Nikyatu Jusu — a Baltimore-based assistant professor of film at George Mason University, born to immigrants from Sierra Leone — can be pretty disturbing.
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Anna Diop plays Aisha, a former teacher now making do as a child-care provider for the young daughter (Rose Decker) of globe-trotting photojournalist Adam (Morgan Spector) and Amy (Michelle Monaghan), a micromanaging workaholic mom who intimidates Aisha with her three-ring binder full of rules. Aisha, a single mother, hopes to bring her own young son (Jahleel Kamara) over from Africa as soon as she can. In the meantime, Amy expects Aisha to spend more and more overnights in the spare bedroom, as late work and frequent travel consume the attention of her employers — when Adam isn’t hitting on Aisha. Amy, for her part, mostly forgets to pay Aisha what she is due. The obvious stress takes its toll on our protagonist, who experiences hallucination-like bad dreams (and the occasional waking vision) involving water and a spidery apparition.
These chimeras accelerate after Aisha is befriended by Malik (Sinqua Walls), the charming front desk attendant in Amy and Adam’s building, and he introduces her to his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), a spiritual consultant who schools Aisha in the African folklore of the trickster figure Anansi the spider and Mami Wata (“mother water”).
For Jusu, they are more metaphorical — symbols of survival and resistance for oppressed people, as Kathleen tells Aisha — than paranormal phenomena. That’s not to say they aren’t creepy when they do pop up, and there are a couple of jump scares here and there. But the film, despite being mostly set in a huge, expensive apartment that inexplicably seems to be illuminated only by low-wattage lightbulbs, by and large resists the easy tropes of conventional horror.
Instead, Jusu focuses, with an assured storytelling that slowly builds a mood of real-world dread, on more corporeal concerns. Why is the apartment so dark? That’s not the question this promising filmmaker is interested in. Rather, she wants to ask, as Kathleen frames it in a challenge to Aisha, “Is your rage your superpower or your kryptonite?”
R. At area theaters; available Dec. 16 on Prime Video. Contains some strong language, brief sexuality and some scary images. In English and some French with subtitles. 98 minutes.