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Anora Film review: “The Greatest Day of Our Lives”

A boy and a girl have just married and walk down the street smiling in Sean Baker's film Anora

Telling the hilarious, delirious, surprisingly sweet story of a sex worker and a rich Russian teenager, Anora is, without a doubt, Sean Baker’s best work to date.

Director: Sean Baker
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Run Time: 139′
Cannes Premiere: May 21, 2024
US Release: October 18, 2024
UK Release: TBA

“Today this could be the greatest day of our lives,” sing Take That at the beginning of Sean Baker‘s Anora, as we find ourselves witnessing not a milestone or anything of the sort, but a whole new kind of American Dream. As the notes of a dance remix of “Greatest Day” fill the room, the camera pans on various body parts of women giving lap dances at Headquarters, the upscale New York City strip club where Anora (Mikey Madison), the film’s protagonist, works.

It no coincidence that Sean Baker chooses to have the Take That song as a narrative frame to his tale, and it’s not just a reference to Red Rocket (2011), where he used NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” in a similarly ironic way. The day we’re about to witness turns out to be as epic, as filled with emotions, and even as romantic as the song suggests – only, not in the way you’d expect.

The magnetic Anora – or Ani, as she likes to be called – navigates the club with ease, dodging the clients’ uncomfortable questions and motivated by one thing, and one thing only: their money. Since Ani’s grandma was Russian and she has some knowledge of the language, one night her manager asks her to dance for a 21-year-old Russian boy named Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), and that’s where our fairytale begins. Ani gives Ivan – who looks way younger than his alleged age – a lap dance, he excitedly shouts “God bless America!,” and he soon asks her for her number, ready to give her all of his family’s fortune so they can keep having sex.

Ivan, whose adorable way of speaking English is hilariously reminiscent of Anton Yelchin‘s Chekov in Star Trek (2009), is clear as to what exactly he wants from Ani. They arrange a meeting at his ginormous house, and when she arrives, he eagerly utters “bedroom, upstairs, let’s go” before removing all his clothes at the speed of light and backflipping on the bed. Ani, who’s 23 and can clearly see Ivan’s lack of experience, is still oddly drawn to the boy, who turns out to be the son of a wealthy Russian businessman. When Ivan wants to pay her to “be [his] horny girlfriend of the week,” she agrees; soon, Ivan asks her to marry him and they’re on their way to Vegas, dreaming of a Disney World honeymoon.

A girl dances with a red dress  in Sean Baker's film Anora
Anora (Pathé / Cannes Film Festival)

When Ani makes one last visit to her workplace to bid her old wife farewell, proudly showing off her expensive ring, her co-worker Diamond (Lindsey Normington) tells her: “I give you two weeks, b*tch”. While Diamond’s comments clarly stem from jealousy, she’s not entirely wrong, as Ivan’s parents aren’t exactly thrilled to hear the news. Soon, his father’s employees Toros (Karren Karagulian), Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan) and Igor (Yura Borisov) are on their way to the house to force them into an annulment, and hilarity ensues.

Sean Baker’s movies tend to revolve around underdogs – people who live at the margins of society. The writer-director takes seemingly ordinary characters leading uneventful existences and manages to make us care for them immensely, depicting them with no judgment and showing us all the humanity underneath. Anora is no exception, as we could watch Ani and Ivan get to know each other for hours. There’s a familiarity in the worldbuilding and characterization that imbues them both with a sweetness that goes beyond who they are and what they do for a living. And when our heroes find themselves in trouble, the stakes are even higher, and our eyes are glued to the screen.

It also helps that Anora is riotously funny. From the moment Toros, Garnick, and Igor arrive at Ivan’s mansion, on a mission to find Ani and Ivan’s marriage certificate, the movie amps up on the absurdity. What follows is a series of unexpected, delirious situations that will have you in tears of laughter, until the lines between heroes and villains are blurred, in the best Sean Baker tradition, and its message sinks in. Because Anora is also restrained in its insanity, using every minute of its run time to work toward a finale that, all of a sudden, hits us with a powerful wave of emotions.

Mikey Madison shines as our protagonist, acting like the glue that holds the film together thanks to her magnetic screen presence and believable delivery, which make Anora feel authentic even in the most unlikely of situations. As Ivan, Mark Eydelshteyn also excels, embodying with apparent ease an extremely difficult character to play, who comes across as charming even despite his not always responsible behavior. With fantastic comedic timing, Karren Karagulian, Vache Tovmasyan and Yura Borisov make their characters hugely memorable: they are essential to the film’s success, and Borisov in particular is a standout.

The real star of the film, however, is Baker’s screenplay, as the movie is not only his most mature work so far, but also his best film to date. Anora is a deceptively simple, hilarious tale that brims with humanity, and that couldn’t have come from anyone but Baker. You’ll be immediately drawn to the world he has created, and you’ll find yourself unable to stop rewatching it over and over again.

Anora premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2024 and will be released in US theaters by NEON on October 18, 2024.

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