Sophie Monks Kaufman


Anora – first-look review

A young exotic dancer shacks up with the son of a Russian billionaire, much to the despair of his parents, in Sean Baker's latest down-and-dirty dramedy.

Sean Baker returns to familiar preoccupations with Anora – sex work, grifters and the promise of a big break that isn’t what it seems. Following in the footsteps of an antihero as well-rounded as Mikey Saber, Red Rocket’s washed-up porn star, Anora’s eponymous exotic dancer lands as sketched in a more superficial mode, through no fault of a spirited and captivating performance from Mikey Madison.

Anora (preferred name ‘Ani’) dances at Headquarters, hustling against rival dancers like Diamond, for drinks and private dances. One night. Ivan “Vanya” (Mark Eydelshteyn) shows up and requests a Russian-speaking dancer. He is the 21-year-old playboy son of a Russian billionaire, as generous with his tips as his infectious good-time party energy. For him, Ani will do something she prefers not to: speak in Russian. He takes a shine to her and she is more than happy to take on ever more intimate jobs – raking it in exchange for brief, excitable sex in his parents’ luxe home, nestling in his arms when he immediately plays video games afterwards, like the large child that he is.

The chemistry between Madison and Eydelshteyn is thrilling and endearing in equal measure. The power divide of their status is writ large from the beginning, but he so guilelessly worships her that it’s almost possible to forget about that, at least for the duration of a quick climax. “This is genius!” he says, slack-jawed after a particularly energetic dance. Soon she’s attending his parties, taking a private jet to Las Vegas and being his “horny girlfriend” for a week for a $15,000 payday. We know that the other shoe must drop at some point, but Baker spins out the excitement of this glittering world that has unfurled itself before Ani. The club scene of after-hours Queens is shot with the awe of Disneyworld in The Florida Project and Ivan’s entourage are just excited kids – high on coke rather than sugar – with no tab to pick up.

Then, Ivan pushes things too far and some designated adults show up. In lieu of his parents, who are scheduled to arrive from Moscow the next day, three Armenian associates in the family employ are deputised to stage an emergency intervention. One of them, a part-time priest, even runs out on a Baptism to reprimand Ivan. Familiar with the music that he doesn’t want to face, Ivan runs out of Ani, leaving her a hostage of these men.

The dynamic between the quartet bounces between action-movie violence and comedy-of-manners politesse, as Ani fights tooth and nail for her freedom and the men apologise for the methods they use to inhibit it. The second act, in which they search a city for Ivan, needing to find him before his parents arrive the next day, calls to mind a more offbeat and loose Uncut Gems.

Baker affords space to people who are generally stock characters – the heavies and the stripper – letting the actors flex the charming little eccentricities that make them human. What binds the four together is that they are all the victims of rich people’s bullshit. While he has always displayed a darkly comic eye, this is the first time that Baker has gone for broad punchlines, there is even a vomit moment played for laughs. These gags take place in another register to Madison’s full-throttled performance of a young woman on the emotional rollercoaster ride of her life.

While the film remains entertaining thanks to the calibre of the performances, there are few surprises in store and not many places for Ani’s character to go. The film tries to simultaneously define her by her sex appeal and subvert this for Madison’s performance is shaded by carefully crafted layers of sexual personification. She embodies it differently when it is work, when she likes someone and when she is using it within a maddening situation to empower herself. This performance is not supported by the script which does not afford her character the same chances to be despicable as it did Mikey Saber in Red Rocket. The opportunism of her attachment to Ivan is under-explored and instead, her affection for him is played up. As such, she remains a riff on a familiar trope, rather than a truly memorable character. A dazzling first act gradually loses its freshness, like last night’s mascara.

Published 21 May 2024

Tags: Sean Baker

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