Those familiar with Mikey Madison will know that the actress goes out in a blaze of glory. In  Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), she’s a Charles Manson acolyte who gets mauled by a pitbull before she topples into a pool and meets her end by a flamethrower. She meets a similarly fiery end in the 2022 Scream sequel, when her face meets a burning stove. Madison’s stellar supporting turns are connected by more than just their trials by fire—they’re indicative of an unpredictable performer with the power of dynamite, exploding with the right fire to light her up. 

Madison lights up like a firework in Sean Baker’s Anora in an exhilarating star-is-born performance that we’ll be talking about for years to come. She’s thankfully not getting set on fire again here, but she burns all the same. It’s there in a blistering, lengthy sequence in the middle of the film, as the titular exotic dancer, played by Madison, wrestles with two goons on the orders of a Russian oligarch to take off the wedding ring freshly placed on her finger. She screams, curses, pleads, bites, kicks, reducing the pair of beefed-up fixers to bumbling fools. They’re bowled over by how such an ostensibly small person can possess such energy: Madison’s transcendent performance has that same ability to knock the wind out of you.

Anora prefers to go by Ani. Every night, she heads to work at a Manhattan strip club called Headquarters, where she drags drooling men to private rooms and rinses businessmen of their cash. She’s roped in to speak to a client, a lanky 21-year-old wealthy heir named Vanya, who requests someone who can speak Russian. (She understands it better than she speaks it, she admits.) Vanya is instantly smitten with the charismatic Ani, and it seems Ani might be endeared to Vanya’s awkward charms too. (A brilliant Mark Eydelshteyn undercuts Vanya’s boyish appeal with the immaturity of a brat who has never done a day’s work.) He asks her to come over to his place the next day and offers her $15,000 to be her “horny girlfriend” for a week. Then he asks her to come to Vegas. And, why not, maybe they should just get married while they’re here. To Ani, it doesn’t matter he’s just doing all of this to piss off his parents. She’s just delighted to follow where the money leads. 

Anora is a film of excess, where cash burns liberally and sex is everywhere, but the scope is pointedly narrow, bringing intimacy to even the most luxurious of settings. The marbled mansion that Vanya crashes at is scarcely explored, with the spoiled kid preferring to stick to home comforts like his video games and the bedroom. But when you have everything and want nothing, what else do you need? It’s a stark contrast to Ani’s perennial grind, in which she shuttles herself between the club, the subway and her bedroom. The simplicity of her routine is one of necessity.

Outside of the Manhattan club and the Las Vegas strip, Baker opts to set much of the film in quieter locales like Coney Island and Brighton Beach, adding rich, true-to-life texture to the milieu. And in a film where everything is currency to spend, little is also shared about Anora’s background. Baker’s screenplay mines vivid detail in other places: the camaraderie and rivalry between her fellow dancers and staff at the strip club, a conversational sparring sustained through the exchange of cigarettes, the casual intimacy that Ani and Vanya build in their little corner of New York.

Which isn’t to say there is little to Ani’s character. Madison and Baker have crafted one of the most colourful and arresting film heroines. Anora resists falling into tired characterisations of the headstrong, hot-headed sex worker, though she certainly has those qualities. She’s smarter than she lets on, but she’s not impenetrable to Vanya’s own seductive spells, unwilling to accept that fairy tales like this don’t happen. She’s a straight-talker in that booming Brooklyn accent, not afraid to say what she’s thinking. But in many ways, she’s also strangely elusive, maintaining a closely-guarded facade that crumbles by the film’s crushing conclusion. 

Clocking in at a hefty 139 minutes, you never feel the film’s inflated runtime because it never gets old. Anora escalates and escalates, and its tight structure shifts from awkward romantic comedy to a home invasion-esque thriller to screwball farce with elegant fluidity. The film is Baker’s best, surpassing even the highs of Tangerine and The Florida Project. It’s a frenetic, drug-fuelled odyssey, more and more hilarious with every passing minute, but it’s also a deeply moving tale of misplaced trust and extinguished hopes. In the end, we’re all just simple people yearning for connection, and when that poisoned apple of opportunity arrives, you can’t help but take it. 

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