Up to this point, Mikey Madison––the fearless, explosive 27-year-old lead of Sean Baker’s Anora––is best-known for her chilling turn as the deranged killer in the 2022 Scream reboot. Before that she was the shrieking Manson girl in the finale of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. (Remember the one Rick Dalton torches in the pool?) Beyond this point, however, the world will know her for Anora. And they will know her.

The stardom won’t be a gift handed down by Baker, the writer, director, casting agent, and editor of the outrageous Brooklyn-based sex-worker-meets-Russian-oligarch-family comedy (not to be read as “family comedy”; it is anything but) that turns the heavy drama up to eleven about halfway through. All a director can do is set their actor up for success and inspire confidence––provide the proper tools, framing, character prep, and rehearsal. Of course, as author of the project, Baker is a conduit for stardom. But no director can corral a performance as unforgettable as Madison’s unless the actor already possesses a sixth sense for the screen, an inimitable talent, and a plucky courage to lay oneself bare in front of millions in more ways than one. 

Baker doesn’t waste any time, diving straight in with an opening dolly shot that tracks across a strip club bench, topless women giving lap dances to the stunned men behind and below them. Her name is Anora, but she goes by Ani. She doesn’t care for her Uzbeki name. Ani works shifts around the clock at a mid-swanky gentleman’s club and lives up against an outdoor subway track near South Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, where Russian and Eastern European cultures are the established norm. (It’s worth noting that Anora marks Baker’s return to the Northeast, where he set his first three films; more specifically New York City, where he shot two of them.)

Ani is calm when we meet her––happy, comfortable, assertive, in control. (“I shared my playlist with [the DJ] last night and he was very rude and dismissive,” she scolds her boss.) As that sense of control fades, so does her composure, always “motherfucker” this and “fuck face” that, speaking a thousand words a minute and never backing down. But who can blame her? We’d all have similar reactions in her situation.

The plot of Anora isn’t as eccentric as the experience. We watch Ani work and live (but mostly work) for a little while, getting a feel for her daily life. Until the night she takes on Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), an unintelligent, self-obsessed, awareness-free Russian client––maybe teenager, surely no older than 22––who happens to be the son of a powerful Russian couple that can’t keep tabs on their boy (they’re not even in the same country). Ivan quickly becomes infatuated with Ani, inviting her daily to his multi-million mansion that overlooks the harbor and eagerly proposing to her mere weeks in.

She doesn’t take it seriously––rightfully so––until she does. Next thing we know, she’s clasped unlovingly in his arms while he plays PlayStation and the maid vacuums under her feet, Ani caught between them, her presence all but ignored by both. Then, per Vegas marriages such as these, shit hits the fan. But it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s the kind of thing you have to see to believe. A description would just sound like exaggeration. 

The important thing to know is that Ivan’s parents find out, they aren’t happy, and they have a harem of henchmen who will do whatever they say at the drop of a hat. Even if a henchman is the top dog, he’s in the middle of his newborn baby’s baptism and the task is as vapid and insignificant as babysitting his bosses’ dickbag son. My god, is he a bag of dicks.

For as dominant as Madison is onscreen, there’s somehow room for Eydelshteyn to shine, his performance radiating with the puerile behavior of the scummiest dregs of nepotism. He wears a sense of born entitlement like he actually knows it, carelessly swinging his indestructibly wiry body around from video game to bar to casino to strip club and back again, infusing viewers with a deep contempt for Ivan. Especially when he pulls the rug out from under Ani.

From then on, Anora is a riotous chase, a nonstop, clusterfuck, screaming-match rollercoaster that doesn’t let you breathe until the final minutes, when it also manages to stop your heart in still, spectacular silence. The cast just gets better and better as more characters file in, Yura Borisov, Karren Karagulian, and Vache Tovmasyan all playing outlandish and disarmingly timid henchmen, each of which would be the best performance in most other films (though Borisov wins the tight race among the group). 

This brand of raw, unadulterated transparency––the clawing discomfort it forces many to confront––is par for the course with Baker who, since 2015, has made three dark, hilarious, unflinching films about sex workers in America, Tangerine and Red Rocket the first and second (the former known for the avalanche of offended walkouts-per-screening that colored its very limited U.S. release).

He didn’t mince words about it in competition three years ago just like he doesn’t now: “If there is one intention with all of these films, it’s telling human stories, telling stories that are hopefully universal. It’s helping remove the stigma that’s been applied to this livelihood, that’s always been applied to this livelihood.” Baker is on a mission to curb America’s most shameful societal tendencies through entertainment, the prominent cruel judgment of and severe socio-economic disdain for sex workers sitting at the very top of his list. 

If his entire filmography up to now didn’t made it clear (think: The Florida Project, Tangerine, Red Rocket), leave it to the chasmic class divide between Ani and Ivan in Anora to show how Baker loves to tell working-class stories––often as close to the poverty line as possible, if not well below it. He doesn’t do it out of some sense of misplaced pity or cinematic tourism; rather out of an interest in portraying the un-portrayed and cinematically discussing an issue as unwieldy as “class in America.”

He knows and evidences how the language of cinema can bring new perspectives to such conversations. (Ani’s seething tirades about the Russian family’s inane wealth are great examples.) And he’s the perfect person for the job: he’s established himself as an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker, one who wants his audiences to be thoughtful, too, regardless of how they entered the room. If you don’t leave a Sean Baker film thinking twice about some of your and your community’s own tendencies, you might’ve missed the point.

Anora is a devastating, gut-busting beauty––regular cinematographer Drew Daniels lending his brilliance to yet another Baker triumph––the kind that hurts your heart and holds you tight to recover at the same time, tears of laughter streaming down your face. Will the real Furiosa please stand up?

Anora premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by NEON.

Grade: A-

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