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Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

‘Pretty Woman’ with a vodka hangover? Sean Baker’s darkly funny sex-work screwball is a blast

A massive jittery comedown of nervous laughs follows a giggly, addictive high in Sean Baker’s Anora. Its wild energy and cynicism-free compassion matches the writer-director’s previous deep dives into the margins of American life, from Tangerine and The Florida Project to Red Rocket.

Again, sex work is a no-judgment matter of fact for Baker: the glowing, sparky heroine of Anora is 23-year-old Anora herself (a brilliant Mikey Madison from Better Things), or ‘Ani’ as she prefers: she’s a lap dancer in a Brooklyn club who gets into an out-of-hours paid-sex relationship with Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), a stupidly rich Russian young layabout two years her junior.

A responsibility-free manchild – endearing but highly slappable – Ivan pays Ani for sex and company as they camp out in his parents’ party-central waterside Brooklyn mansion, smoking weed and gaming on the couch. They even speak a little Russian together, as Ani grew up with a Russian grandmother in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Things move fast. Days later, Ivan is paying Ani for a whole week in Vegas with his pals and – hold tight – proposing marriage. It’s all beaming smiles and devil-may-care partying as Ani – and Baker – runs with the crazy momentum of the whole thing, saying ‘yes’, accepting a ring, finding it genuinely cute when Ivan says he loves her, and, finally, marrying him in Vegas’s Little White Chapel.  

The smiles soon fade, with Baker bursting the cosy bubble of this fledgling relationship. When Ivan’s oligarch parents back in Russia hear of what’s happening, they aren’t exactly express-delivering congratulatory flowers and counting the seconds until they become grandparents. It’s then that the wheels of a dark screwball comedy really start spinning extra-fast, as three heavies hold Ani under house arrest in Ivan’s mansion, determined to obey his parents’ order and get this shameful marriage annulled pronto. 

Anora is a great creation, hemmed in by life but no victim

After some films, you think: they could have told that story anywhere. Never with Baker’s movies. Whether it’s the pastel-coloured motel of The Florida Project or the middle-of-nowhere town in Red Rocket, he thrives on the specificity of his locations – here mainly Brighton Beach and Coney Island, as well as legitimised-scuz central itself, Las Vegas.

He’s also a master at showing love for his characters, however flawed, and Anora is a great creation, hemmed in by life but no victim, bursting with smarts, and a better person than anyone else we meet along the way.

It shouldn’t all be so funny, but it is, and it’s to Baker’s huge credit that he’s able to inspire laughs and huge enjoyment from this madcap story without leaving you feeling that the woman at the heart of this mess has been short-changed and exploited for our pleasure. Quite the opposite: Baker has us on Team Ani all the way.

Anora premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun

Cast and crew

  • Director:Sean Baker
  • Screenwriter:Sean Baker
  • Cast:
    • Darya Ekamasova
    • Mikey Madison
    • Ivy Wolk
    • Lindsey Normington
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