Anora: Sean Baker’s demolition of the Pretty Woman fantasy is his most vivid creation yet

Mikey Madison achieves instant star status as Ani, a funny, fiery Brooklyn sex worker who enters a whirlwind marriage with the spoiled son of a Russian oligarch.

Anora (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

A certain minority of viewers has at times imagined a version of Pretty Woman (1990) in which Richard Gere’s car does not pull up near Julia Roberts’ sensitive striver Vivian, but next to Laura San Giacomo’s Kit, Vivian’s salty, obscurely heartbreaking best friend. Perhaps director Sean Baker is one of us. His fantastic, Palme d’Or-winning screwball-tragicomedy, Anora, plays like a dizzy homage to, and then a breakneck evisceration of, the whole Pretty Woman fantasy machine, electrified by a central character whose jaw-jutting attitude and brittle worldliness make her a Brighton Beach crazy-mirror Kit, raised to the power of a sweet smile that actually communicates “Just gimme my money, already.” For all its megawatt charm, Anora is not a fairytale. It’s a Cinde-fucking-rella story. 

Anora (instant superstar Mikey Madison), her Brooklyn accent so laaawng and narrow it’s like she’s sucking all her vowels through a straw, dislikes her “shitty Uzbek name” and insists on going by Ani instead. This makes the film’s title both a gentle rebuke and an affirmation – and this is hardly the first time that Baker has displayed an uncanny knack for loving even those aspects of his characters that they cannot love about themselves. Not that Ani appears too constrained by shame otherwise: In the Manhattan strip club where she struts her stuff, trading quips and catty insults, as appropriate, with the other girls, Ani is among the best and most confident stuff-strutters of them all. 

As Drew Daniels’ miraculously un-sleazy camera tracks down a lineup of fishnet-clad behinds gyrating in slo-mo under the anthemic sentimentality of Take That’s Greatest Day (a cut as inspired as Baker’s frequent invocation of *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye in 2021’s Red Rocket) Ani writhes atop client after client during one packed shift. These boozed-up, horny men might be buying her body, but what they’re paying for is the flirty chatter, the eye contact, the pretty strands of glitter she has woven into her hair. It doesn’t matter that this simulacrum of intimacy is a transaction. While she’s on the clock, Ani takes pride in faking it so real.   

Still, she’s on a break and therefore reluctant when her boss asks her to go look after a Russian kid who’s flashing a fat wad in one of the booths (Ani can understand Russian, though she’s shy about speaking it). But Ani hits it off with the stratospherically spoiled yet endearing Vanya (terrific find Mark Eydelshteyn) and soon he’s paying her for sex and proposing she moves in to his absent oligarch parents’ gated McMansion for the week, in return for $15,000. Days of vigorous humping, Playstation and druggy hangouts ensue. Vanya flies Ani and his hedonistic entourage to Vegas on his family’s private jet, and there, in that unrealest of cities, mid-coitus, he suggests they get married. Ani asks him repeatedly if he’s serious. He insists he is, partly so that he’ll be able to stay in the US against the wishes of Mom and Dad, but also because his easy charm matches her pragmatic optimism, and they have fun together that could go on forever and ever, right? Ani returns to New York with a ring on her finger and a shotgun-chapel marriage certificate in her hand, labouring under the delusion that this time, this amazing once-upon-a-time, she’s faked it so real she’s made it real — or at least, she’s going battle very fucking hard to make it so. This Cinderella will bring her diligent pre-transformation work ethic into her luxurious post-transformation life.  

But the news filters back to Russia, and Vanya’s enraged parents sic their hassled local fixer Toros (Karren Karagulian) onto their errant son along with his two goons: clumsy, bumbling Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan) and quietly bemused Igor (Yura Borisov, superb breakout from 2021’s Compartment No. 6), whose stealthy admiration for Ani’s spirit mirrors our own. Because until this point Anora has been a delicious whirlwind of night clubs, hotel suites and high-end malls, of Vanya doing the Risky Business (1983) slide across the polished floors of his house and Ani waking up each morning to the expansive ocean view from the bedroom window. But from here on, Baker finds an even higher gear of antic comedy and chaotic drama, driven especially, after Vanya ungallantly takes flight, by Ani’s unexpectedly tenacious tooth-and-nail determination to hang on to a life and a marriage that only she believes is rightfully hers to fight for. In the first half of Anora, we liked Ani a lot. In the second half, we grow to love her unconditionally, like Baker does.

It makes the emotional wallop of the film’s very last scene land with extraordinary force. Baker, always among the most principled, socially aware and humane of American indie filmmakers, is a master of the abrupt yet satisfying coup-de-grâce tone-shift. But where the endings of Red Rocket and The Florida Project (2017) both unexpectedly swerve into fantasy for characters mired in a messy reality, here the finale takes a different trajectory, right down the middle between happily-ever and happily-never after. By turns swoony, funny, panicky and sad, this is the director’s most vivid creation yet. If fairytales are for princesses and Julia Roberts, Anora is for Ani and Kit and all the non-fictional sex workers to whom Baker dedicated his Cannes win, who live in the real world where no one rescues anyone, let alone gets rescued right back.