‘Anora’: Wild Sex Worker Cinderella Story Just Dazzled Cannes

Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival

Sometimes it feels like an actor has just been waiting for their breakout moment: Mikey Madison just had hers at the Cannes Film Festival. She has been good for a long time in projects like Better Things, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Scream. (In both of the latter titles she, bizarrely, played a crazed villain who was ultimately lit on fire. She has a great scream.)

But she has never quite had a role like the title character in Sean Baker’s Anora, a twisted fairy tale about a sex worker who impulsively marries the son of a Russian oligarch. The film is very funny, until it punches you in the gut with a beautiful ending, and it entirely rests on Madison’s performance as the tough-as-nails Anora.

Anora, however, goes by Ani, when we first meet her through a series of lap dances at the midtown strip club where she works. That night her boss tells her to go meet with Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), a gangly Russian patron, who wants her for a dance because she speaks his language. He’s infatuated, they hit it off, and she gives him her number. When they first meet up for sex, he reveals his family’s riches, and after inviting her to a rager of a New Year’s Eve party, he pays her $15,000 to be his girlfriend for a week, in which they party, run around Coney Island, and go to Vegas. It’s all like a semi-sordid dream for her. He showers her with affection and lets her live in his lavish world. And then, in Sin City, he proposes. She says yes.

But once they get back to New York it all starts to go sour. His parents get wind of the nuptials, and send their lackeys to clean up his mess. Instead of standing by his new bride, Ivan runs off, forcing Ani and the beleaguered employees to chase after him, leading to a delirious adventure through Brooklyn that feels reminiscent of the way Baker used Los Angeles in Tangerine, his film about trans sex workers that takes place over one Christmas.

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Madison, using a perfect New Yawk accent, plays Ani as a self-possessed woman who knows her worth, and refuses to let anyone who she thinks is taking advantage of her do so. Still, we also see in her eyes how swept up she is by Ivan, allowing herself to be slightly blinded by his gilded universe and giant mansion. She knows he’s somewhat childish—their sex scenes in which he finishes very quickly prove that—but he’s also fun, genuinely affectionate, and, of course, wealthy. And when he proposes she believes that he really wants to give a middle finger to the life he has awaiting him back in Russia.

So when his parents’ muscle arrives, Ani stands her ground. In the movie’s most thrilling sequence, she gives two guys much bigger than her absolute hell when they try to prevent her from following Ivan into the snowy streets. She leaves destruction in her wake, kicking furiously, breaking noses, and biting necks. She can fight back and scream louder than anyone.

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Madison wears Ani’s vulnerabilities just under the surface. We never learn much about her backstory—just that her mom now lives in Florida and she hates going by Anora. To be a descendant of Russian immigrants in New York comes with a sort of shame for her, but to be the bride of a rich Russian guy? That's fine. All that tension builds up until the last beat of the film, making the ending all the more poignant. (Baker has a thing for great endings. See: The Florida Project.)

In a way, Anora operates as an anti-Pretty Woman, where a happy ending never seems in the cards. However, for as much as it pokes holes in the tropes that the Julia Roberts movie perpetuated, it’s not a sour film, in part because Baker refuses to pity his protagonist, giving her the dignity she deserves. A lot of the credit for Anora herself goes to how Madison imbues her portrayal with so much fire. When the actor beamed during the applause at the Cannes premiere it felt like a star was truly born.

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