The poster for Babysit creates the feeling of a very specific, very familiar type of film through an extreme close-up of the face of Aisha, the protagonist. She looks distressed, her features still recognizable but slightly distorted by streaks that look like liquid paint or dripping water. It’s easy to imagine this image accompanied by discordant music that draws tension and fear out of the silence and complements a story of how this woman is undone by the things she has seen. The poster advertises that Babysit is released by Blumhouse, a studio best known for high-concept horror. The slogan is “We are haunted by what we leave behind.”
All those hints that Babysit is a horror film are not false advertising: writer-director Nikyatu Jusu consciously uses the trappings of modern horror to shape the story. But she’s visibly less concerned with serving up the audience with jumps and jerks than she is with crafting resonant drama. Jusu paints a rich portrait of Aisha’s life as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant and nanny under the thumb of a wealthy white family, but the horror elements meant to visualize her internal struggles never quite match.
Right off the bat, the movie gives a sense of the stiff dynamic between nanny 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 binder with guidelines, contact information, meal plans and more. Amy isn’t exactly unfriendly, but the position of the camera creates a sense of distance, chilling the warmth she’s trying to present. It’s nothing terrible – a slightly gaudy first impression, an air of entitlement. But Amy then steps over that professional line by asking for a hug. Aisha is momentarily surprised, but she obliges her boss. Amy doesn’t present the request as a demand, but she doesn’t have to; Aisha was hired to care for Amy’s young daughter Rose (Rose Decker), but she’s hardly in a position to turn down the woman responsible for her wages – especially on her first day on the job.
Aisha dutifully records her hours and puts the receipts in Amy’s folder, though her payment is cash and otherwise not on the books. She’s cheaper than a documented nanny, and she’s barely aware of the situation; as a former undocumented school teacher, this is simply the best path she can find for her skills. Aisha needs the money – she hopes to bring her young son, Lamine, from Senegal. His absence weighs heavily on her, and is compounded by her profession: while she bonds with, cares for, and generally pays attention to Rose, her own son is an ocean away. Aisha’s relationship with Lamine is entirely through her phone, in garbled video chats or recordings of the moments she missed.
Aisha’s guilt over leaving her son manifests itself in strange visions. Inside, the rain falls in buckets from the sky. A distant figure stands in a lake at a distance. Spider legs cast a long shadow that unfolds like an open maw. Aisha is able to identify some of the footage by telling Rose stories about Anansi the spider, and how his small size means he has to use his cunning to survive. When you talk to an older woman (deadpoolLeslie Uggams) who is more adept at the supernatural, she discovers that Anansi and the mermaid-like water spirit Mami Wata are trying to convey something to her. Aisha is fluent in several languages and it is part of her job to teach them to Rose. But whatever these mythical figures try to tell her is a mystery.
Hallucinations and loss of time coupled with guilt and/or trauma are standard territory for panicked people in art house films. A year now without one or two cinematic descendants of The Babadook would feel incomplete. But Babysit is distinguished by its visual language, realized with unusual skill and grown from folkloric roots that are a far cry from the standard issue of horrors of shadowy entities pounding the wall in other films. While Aisha’s visions unsettle her, and are intended to upset viewers by association, they are understated and beautiful in the way they bathe her in ethereal light. There’s a sense that the visions wouldn’t be so disturbing after all, if only she could find out what they mean.
Where another film would have focused solely on Aisha’s pain and mental unravelling, Jusu makes her protagonist try to live her life and regain some control. She tells a friend about Lamine’s absent father and strikes up a romance with the building’s handsome doorman (Sinqua Walls), who has a child of his own. She stands up for herself when her employers don’t pay her and unpaid overtime hours pile up. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), says he will “advance” Aisha the payment, and she quietly but firmly corrects him: It’s not an advance if it’s what she already owes.
Jusu excels at highlighting the uneasy power dynamics at work, allowing Aisha’s relationship with her employers to be tense and complex rather than teetering on overtly sinister territory. There is no malice in the way they treat Aisha, but her discomfort at the liberties they take and the boundaries they cross is always palpable. Amy at one point lends Aisha a dress, insisting that it match her skin, even though Aisha notes that it is a bit tight. Adam’s photographs adorn the apartment in large, enlarged prints, and he is eager to talk to Aisha about the subjects of his art and fame: black poverty and struggle. These interactions are superficially reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s awkward “meet the family” moments Outbut the truth of it is smartly mundane: her employers are so comfortable over her that they don’t have to consider her inwardness at all.
In fact, this dynamic is so well executed that it’s curious that Jusu even bothered to play with horror, considering that it is much less effective than the drama. Aisha’s eerie visions are the film’s weakest part, building to an abrupt end as they raise a recurring question: Will an audience sit still only to witness the social dangers of a Senegalese immigrant as they become a few terrifying apartment wanderings? promised? in between?
Horror becomes a storytelling tool when used in this way, as if it were the only way to purge the typical happily ever after expectations of a more conventional film. The Oscar bait version of Babysit is as easy to imagine as the scary one suggested by the poster, perhaps retaining Diop’s nuanced leading role, but smothering in howling speeches and rewarding a theme of virtue, where hard work pays off and the villainous characters the error of their ways see or get what awaits them. Horror may be the only storytelling mode that reliably prepares audiences for this pessimistic version of the story, but Jusu’s otherwise impressive work suffers when she divides focus and hides the clearest ideas under genre distractions.
Babysit debuts in theaters on November 23 and streams on Prime Video on December 16.