Sundance Film Festival: ‘Nanny’ leads parade of scares

When a character pulled a severed human leg out of a fridge in the horror movie “Fresh,” I laughed and then hit pause. I had that luxury because, like everyone else this year, I didn’t have to fly to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, but attended this awesome edition of blood at the House. So I just fast-forwarded to the macabre surprise of the helicopter. As for the movie, it’ll be fine without my love: it’s already racked up positive reviews and will be released on Disney-owned Hulu because, well, sometimes dreams do come true.

This human stem was part of a colorful parade of body parts on display at this year’s Sundance, which included a veritable mass grave of severed limbs, decapitated heads and disembowelled guts. The specter of horror maestro David Cronenberg haunts “Resurrection,” a not-quite-successful creepfest starring excellent Rebecca Hall, while other films owed a manifest debt to Jordan Peele’s 2017 Sundance hit “Get Out including “Master” (about a black student and professor at a predominantly white university) and “Emergency”, an entertaining nail biter about three friends trapped in a white nightmare.

I didn’t like “Fresh,” which uses captivity panic for dubious feminist ends, though I may have enjoyed it with more company. Watching horror movies alone isn’t the same as being in a theater full of other people, including Sundance. There, the public tends to be already energized and excited just to be in the room, to see a film for the first time and often with the filmmakers present. The hothouse atmosphere of festivals can be deceiving and turn mediocrities into events, sure, but the loud clamor of such hype is always outweighed by the exhilarations of discoveries and revelations with others.

This is the second year Sundance has been forced to scrap in-person plans due to the pandemic. The festival had instituted sound vax and mask protocols, and the Utah county where Sundance takes place has a higher vaccination rate than New York or Los Angeles. But Utah also had the third-highest rate of Covid-19 infections in the country on Monday, as The Salt Lake Grandstand reported recently. And, frankly, considering how many times I’d come home from Sundance with a bad cold or the flu (including a whopper from a mystery bug that flattened me in 2020), I didn’t take the hard to book another overpriced condo.

Instead, I moved into my living room, hooked up my laptop to my TV, and streamed from the festival’s easy-to-use website. Between movies, I’ve been texting some of the same co-workers I hang out with at Sundance when we’re in Park City. In 2020, we shared our love for “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s documentary about a family’s struggle with the American prison system. (I missed the 2021 edition of the festival.) This year, we’ve been swapping must-haves and must-haves again. “I told you how awful it was,” my friend chided me about “You’ll Never Be Alone,” a shock about a witch. She had, sigh. We also kept coming back to a favorite: “Wow Nanny,” she texted. Oh yes.

One of the stars of this year’s American Drama Contest, “Nanny” was another selection I deeply regretted not seeing with an audience, both for its visceral shock and lush beauty. In that case, I would have stayed in my seat, like I did at home, where pesky household distractions can make it hard to pay attention, especially when a movie isn’t loud enough to fully hold you. That was never a problem with “Nanny,” which captivated me from the start with its visuals and mysteries, its emotional depths, and the tight control that writer-director Nikyatu Jusu maintains over her material.

Set in New York, the story centers on Aisha (the excellent Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant who has just accepted a job as a nanny. Her new workplace, a luxurious sprawl as sterile as a magazine layout, sets off immediate alarm bells, as do the exaggerated smiles and obsessive instructions of her tightly wounded white employer, Amy (Michelle Monaghan). The setup is reminiscent of “Black Girl,” Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène’s classic 1966 film about the horrors of postcolonialism. It’s an obvious aesthetic and political touchstone for Jusu, who nevertheless is moving quickly and confidently in his own direction.

Like a number of other selections from this year’s festival, ‘Nanny’ is a horror film with a profound difference; unlike too many other filmmakers, Jusu is never boxed in by genre. Instead, horror film conventions are part of an expansive toolkit that includes narrative ellipsis, expressionistic use of bright color, and figures from African folklore, including a spider-like trickster and a water spirit called Mami Wata. Here, clichés like the oppressive house, the controlling employer and the vulnerable heroine turn out to be much more complex than they appear, having been cleverly re-imagined for this angsty and haunting story.

Women in Peril are familiar screen figures, but this year there was honest variety in the types of directors putting knives to their throats. At some point — between streaming, smiling, grimacing, crying, and occasionally getting blood and guts — I realized I hadn’t bothered to count the number of women and people of color in this year’s program. I saw enough fictional stories and documentaries with an array of different types of people that I hadn’t started compulsively profiling filmmakers. Yes, there were some reliable Sundance, the eternally cute and goofy white kids of Indiewood, but not enough to remind you of the old days when the festival was crowded with Tarantino clones.

The auteurist touchstone at Sundance these days is Jordan Peele, whose radical use of gender continues to feel relevant to the traumas of contemporary life. The preponderance of scary tales in this program is obviously a matter of availability, cinematic copying and curatorial discretion. Considering all the gutting on screen this year, I imagine festival director Tabitha Jackson and programming director Kim Yutani have a strong stomach and sense of humor. The fact that they’re also feminist goes without saying, though gratifying, and may help explain why there are three abortion movies on the slate.

The two I’ve seen – the well-acted drama “Call Jane” and the solid, informative documentary “The Janes” – aren’t horror movies in the usual sense, but as more conventional examples of the genre, they turn also on the body, and more particularly the female body, in danger. Each film revisits the Jane Collective, a group of women and a few men who, from 1968 to 1973, helped women in Chicago obtain safe abortions before the procedure became a constitutional right. And while the image of a member (Elizabeth Banks) in “Call Jane” learning to administer abortions by practicing on pumpkins might not have been a Halloween joke, I still laughed. .

On a visible and quantifiable level, this year’s programming reaffirms that a true diversity of filmmakers also generates a welcome cinematographic multiplicity. It can be easy to think of representation as an abstraction, as a political cudgel, a boring rallying cry, an annoyance. Again and again this year, the sight of all those bodies, especially of women — including Emma Thompson letting it all hang out beautifully in the sweet comedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” — was a reminder that these performances are not boxes that have been checked off. It is the embodied truths, pleasures and terrors of women and people of color who, having long served as the canvas for fantasies of otherness, have taken control of their own images.

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