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Anora Is a Glorious Strip-Club Fairytale With a Generous Spirit

One of Sean Baker’s gifts as a filmmaker is that he makes us feel like insiders even in worlds that are likely to be unfamiliar to most of us. Sex workers who look after one another with fierce loyalty become our friends, too. Kids making their own scrappy magic while living in a budget motel on the edge of Walt Disney World ignite our imaginations as well, reminding us what it was like to conjure fun out of nothing, especially when our parents were off doing other things. Baker’s new movie Anora, playing in competition here in Cannes, invites us into the world of a young sex worker from Brooklyn named Ani—she doesn’t like her full name, which is the same as the movie’s title, though by the end, it’s the only name regal enough to suit her tender, fighting spirit. Ani works in a Manhattan strip club; one night her boss summons her to meet with a client who has asked specifically for a Russian-speaker. Because she’s Uzbek-American and used to speak Russian with her grandmother, she’s got the qualifications. And so Ani meets Ivan, the son of a Russian oligarch, a funny, endearing kid—he claims to be 21, but you doubt it—who’s as playful as a wolf pup and who tosses hundred-dollar bills around like play money.

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That’s how Anora kicks into gear, but by its end—one of those great movie endings that’s both staggering and gentle—Baker will spin us around a few times before showing us the path toward Ani’s future. How does he do it? There are few filmmakers as open-hearted, as stone-soup inventive, as Baker is. In movies like Tangerine and The Florida Project, he’s always shown a knack for doing a lot with a little. But with Anora, so playful yet so emotionally fine-grained, he maybe does the most. It’s his best movie yet.

Ani, played by Mikey Madison (who played Max Fox on Better Things, and also appeared as one of the Manson Girls in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), seems to like her job well enough, or at least she doesn’t think to complain about it. At work, she’s a friendly, flirty presence—obviously, that’s part of the job, but you also see glimmers of her true spirit there. If she’s a little guarded by necessity, she’s also a great wisecracker; and if she looks a little younger than her age, 23, she can clearly take care of herself. When Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn) sees her, and realizes he can communicate with her in his broken English, he looks like a shining prince who has located his princess—all for the price of a friendly lap dance.

He asks Ani if she “works outside the club.” Next thing you know, decked out in heels and a stretchy dress, she’s at the door of the retro-futuristic Brighton Beach mansionette owned by Ivan’s absentee parents. After she’s let in by the guard, she buzzes at the front door—Ivan slides along the highly polished living-room floor in his socks, Risky Business-style, to answer. They make genial small talk; Ani is the one who has to push the action along. Young Ivan, simultaneously cocky and terrified in a teenage way, finally takes the hint: “Bedroom. Upstairs. Let’s go!” This is the beginning of a whirlwind romantic adventure, a classic screwball-comedy matchup that’s exhilarating and fun to watch, though you know there’ll eventually be trouble in paradise.

Baker allows us to relish this romance of gamboling youth—its high point is an impulsive Las Vegas marriage, a betrothal of two kids at play—for a generous chunk of the movie. Then he switches everything around, and the story shifts into glorious, spin-art chaos. New characters barge into our reverie: there’s Toros (Baker’s longtime collaborator Karren Karagulian), Ivan’s officious but bumbling godfather, who appears at the behest of Ivan’s parents—they’ve caught wind of their son’s marriage to a “prostitute” and send Toros in to correct what they see as a family disgrace. Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan), is in the unenviable position of being the tough-guy enforcer. And then there’s Igor (Yura Borisov), who’s been asked to come along and provide extra muscle—he seems a little tough until you get a good look at his eyes and see the poetry in there. Ani fights them all off, wildcat-style, as they try to destroy her newfound happiness. She kicks so hard at Garnick she breaks her nose. Igor tries hard to restrain her while also respecting her personal space. We watch as she defends her right to her own romantic bliss, before it slowly dawns on her that the dream she’s been wrapped in, like the Russian-sable coat Ivan has bought her, is a temporal thing that others can strip away.

Anora is crazy-good fun, but Baker isn’t just in it for the nutso entropy. I’ve heard some people comparing the film, in its crackpot liveliness, to the work of the Safdie Brothers. But to me, it’s more in league with Something Wild- and Married to the Mob-era Jonathan Demme. For the space of one movie, at least, it’s as if Demme, with his golden heart, has been restored to us. Baker has that kind of generosity.

And like Demme, he’s wonderful with his actors. Ivan’s character is one of those spoiled rich kids who sets off warning bells that we willfully ignore. That’s because, as Eydelshteyn plays him, he still hasn’t crossed the line from ingenuous innocence to pure, manipulative calculation; he’s like a junior Czechoslovakian Playboy. Borisov’s Igor works gentle, simmering magic in every scene. At one point, as Toros and Garnick hustle Ani along the Coney Island boardwalk in the freezing cold, on the way to fulfill their mission of correcting Ivan’s mistake, Igor hands Ani a red scarf he’s grabbed from the house, thinking she might be cold. She glares at him—earlier, Toros had used that same scarf to stop her from screaming—before grudgingly accepting it. Even in her anger, even as she’d much rather deck Igor than accept anything he’s offering her, she’s alive to kindness in the world, and although she doesn’t know it yet, to the kindness in him.

Madison is simply wonderful. Every year at Cannes there’s one actress who captivates a broad swath of the audience, and this year, that performer seems to be Madison. She plays Ani as a woman in charge, so capable you don’t worry about her one bit. And then you start to catch glimmers of her vulnerability, of her embarrassment at having yielded to a false dream. Her spontaneous, resilient smile gives way to something that looks like worry, and it’s wrenching. Yet we know Ani will get the happy ending she deserves, even if Baker doesn’t hand it to us directly—instead, he points the way to the life Ani will move toward after the movie is over, after its final moment of radiant grace. This is one of those endings that leaves you feeling a little bereft. You want to be able to see these characters again, to check in on their hard-earned happiness. But if you can trust any filmmaker, you can trust Baker. He’s promised us they’ll be OK. And so they will.

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