Anna Diop in Baby sister
There’s something about the housework experience that goes hand-in-hand with good horror storytelling. Henry James knew it, John Carpenter knows it and Nikyatu Jusu he knows it too. The main character in Jusu’s feature film directorial debut, Baby sister (in theaters November 23 and streaming on Prime Video December 16), he is a haunted figure who exists for much of the film in a strange space, a cold home that is not his own. There’s a feeling of wandering through a haunted house, but also a feeling that a nanny can be some kind of ghost, wandering a space she doesn’t own, sometimes invisible, sometimes barely there. It’s a powerful place from which to start a horror movie, but Baby sister it doesn’t stop there.
What begins as an uncomfortable introduction to a strange new environment soon changes shape and Baby sister rises to become a haunting and darkly beautiful meditation on the immigrant experience, West African folklore, and the forces that drive a woman to keep fighting. With those elements in place, all anchored by a fearless performance from Anna Diop, it emerges as one of the most compelling horror movies of the year.
Diop is Aisha, an immigrant from Senegal who has settled in New York City, where she hopes to earn enough money to bring her young son from her home country to start a new life. It is this search for her that leads her to Amy’s (Michelle Monaghan) doorstep, who needs a babysitter for her daughter Rose from her (Rose Decker). It’s a good job in a nice house, and Aisha’s spirits are bolstered by a new relationship with a local boy (Sinqua Walls) who she likes.
But the road to the life that Aisha wants is not so easy to walk. As the new job takes on an increasingly important role in her life, and her relationship with Amy becomes increasingly strained, Aisha forms a deeper bond with Rose and a new sense of anxiety informed by nightmares. surprisingly realistic. Something has taken root in Aisha’s mind, something informed by her homeland that may want to help her or may want to hurt her, and it changes everything in her life, her work, and quite possibly her future. .
How exactly this all plays out is best left to the film itself to explain, but the way Jusu structures his story makes for a stylish, satisfyingly creepy slow-burn fusion of folk horror and chilling homegrown. Right away, there’s an intimacy within the track, a sense that Jusu and Diop know every nook and cranny of this experience, which makes Baby sister both immersive and almost instantly haunting, even in quiet moments when everything seems to be going well. Never stretching too long at a tight, horror-friendly 98 minutes, Jusu’s script is packed with rich details that expose all the little fears that come with a job like this, all of them true, all of them terrifying. What if Amy’s (Morgan Spector) husband becomes too familiar? What if something happens at home that Aisha can’t handle? What if Rose begins to eclipse her own son’s place in her life? What if, in the eyes of her employer, Aisha becomes less of a helper and more of an enemy?
(LR:) Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan in Baby sister
Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang emphasize these questions, and the fear they generate, through a series of subtle yet invigorating contrasts. Outside of Amy’s house, Aisha’s world seems to have more color. She can feel the warmth of the neon, the glow of her potential future, the passion she is building in her love life. Inside the house, things are cooled, even washed, emphasizing the removal of everything. With the exception of Rose, everything about her in her work life seems boxy and contrived, and the more she brings her own warmth to that world, the greater her tension with Amy. It’s a film that plays wonderfully with light and shadow, and that sense of contrast is reflected in the sound design. Water plays a big part in the film, as do the often intrusive sounds of New York City itself, and Jusu and her crew weave those elements into each scene in ways that surprise you, until it’s too late. . It’s all designed to make you ask yourself yet another question about the movie: are Aisha’s nightmares just nightmares, or is there something else going on?
It is that question, and the velvety, gradual horror that accompanies it, that centers Baby sister like a horror movie, and which allows it to stand out as a singular story that is nonetheless rooted in very identifiable fears. This is not a movie that wants to scare you with scare after scare, but a movie that wants to bury itself in your heart and fester, seeping into your room like a slow trickle of water. Sometimes it feels like this sense of the gradual might start to drift aimlessly, but every time it does, Jusu, and Diop’s surprisingly vulnerable lead performance, brings things back to center, cementing Baby sister as one of the best-crafted horror movies of 2022.
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