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Mikey Madison in Sean Baker’s Cracked Cinderella Story

Mikey Madison in Sean Baker’s Cracked Cinderella Story

One of the things Sean Baker does exceptionally well is draw us into a vivid and highly specific milieu, nurturing our affections for characters who are rough-edged, to put it mildly, and then whip up a vortex of steadily escalating chaos. The writer-director is like a conductor of raw symphonies about people from the marginalized fringes caught in a dizzying whirl, sometimes of their own making and sometimes not. Sex workers have been a big part of Baker’s gallery of outsiders, which makes Anora a fine addition to his terrific body of work.

As a character, played by Mikey Madison with a sweetness that humanizes even the most transactional situations and a defensiveness that makes her dangerous when threatened, Anora, who goes by Ani, stands alongside the defiantly resilient protagonists of Baker’s last handful of films, from Starlet and Tangerine through The Florida Project and Red Rocket.


The Bottom Line

A cross-culture fairy tale that takes a whiplash turn.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Mikey Madison, Mark Eydelshteyn, Yura Borisov, Karren Karagulian, Vache Tovmasyan, Darya Ekamasova, Aleksey Serebryakov
Director-screenwriter: Sean Baker

2 hours 18 minutes

Ani lives with her sister in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and works in a Manhattan lap-dancing bar called HQ, an environment of throbbing sexuality and glittering sleaze that Baker refreshingly treats like any regular workplace. New York is tough and a girl’s got to earn a living. There’s both camaraderie and friction among the young women who dance there, and while over-inebriated customers might sometimes need to be cut off at the bar, the bouncer and boss ensure that it’s a relatively safe space.

Approaching each potential client with a winsome smile, Ani knows how to maximize her take-home, gently steering them via the ATM to semi-private booths for a lap dance or into VIP rooms for something more special. Her upbringing with an Uzbek grandmother who spoke no English has given her cultural familiarity and rudimentary communication skills that come in handy with Russian customers, which is the case when Ivan Zakharov (Mark Eydelshteyn), hits the club ready to party. “God bless America!” he exclaims as Ani treats him to a little extra.

Unlike many of her customers, Ivan is close in age to Ani and she likes him well enough to give him her number, looking to make some cash on the side. That seems a good decision when he sends a town car to pick her up the next day and bring her to the gated and guarded mansion where he lives in luxury, ostensibly while on a U.S. study trip, which he treats like a vacation. At 23, Ivan is an immature, giggly stoner who likes to play videogames and have sex like a Duracell bunny. But Ani seems tickled by his goofy charms.

He invites her to a wild New Year’s Eve party at his palatial digs, and when she makes moves to head home the next day, he suggests an exclusive arrangement whereby she spends the week with him before he’s due to return to Russia and start working for his father. In a winking nod to Pretty Woman, she negotiates upwards to $15,000, cash up-front.

There’s plenty of booze, coke and weed on hand as they hang out at Coney Island with Ivan’s bros and their girlfriends. On a whim, they all head on a private plane to Las Vegas, where Ivan is no stranger to their hotel’s luxury penthouse suite. In what starts out half-jokingly but soon becomes a serious, if impulsive, proposal, he asks Ani to marry him. One four carat diamond ring purchase later, they’re hitched.

In a similarly ironic way to how he used NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” in Red Rocket, Baker makes a motif of the Take That banger, “Greatest Day,” a euphoric anthem for the giddy high on which Ani’s life is transformed. Wrapped in a luxuriant new Russian sable coat, she ditches her HQ job, excitedly planning on the Disney World honeymoon in a magical princess suite that she’s dreamed of since she was a kid.

The real world comes crashing in when word of the wedding — and of Ani’s profession — gets back to Russia and Ivan’s parents send their Armenian fixer Toros (Karren Karagulian, a lucky charm in Baker’s films) to set their son straight. Since Toros is caught up in a family christening, he dispatches two stooges, Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan) and Igor (Yura Borisov), to verify the marriage and await further instructions. But that plan goes spectacularly wrong.

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In the movie’s most hilarious set-piece, Ivan makes a run for it, leaving Ani alone to deal with the goons. But she proves a formidable match for them, causing considerable wreckage and injury before they subdue her long enough to bundle her into a car and go looking for her husband. That night-long search takes them through authentic Brighton Beach locales — a pool hall, a videogame arcade, Tatiana Grill on the boardwalk — all of which serve to enrich the movie’s sense of place.

Ivan’s father Nikolai (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his far more ferocious mother Galina (Darya Ekamasova) fly in to deal with the disgrace to their family and push through an annulment. When Ivan, accurately described by Toros as “a spoiled brat who doesn’t want to grow up,” is finally located, he’s too wasted even to discuss what’s happening with Ani.

As events veer into seemingly dangerous territory, Baker spices up the scenes with throwaway humor that keeps the film buoyant, even as Ani gets a rude awakening about the shallowness of spineless Ivan’s feelings for her, let alone his respect. But as is customary in the director’s work, women treated as sexual playthings in the narrative are treated with dignity by the film. It’s a nice touch that while Galina fumes over Ani’s refusal just to back down and be compliant, Nikolai finds her feistiness extremely funny. He seems unaccustomed to hearing anyone talk back to his wife.

Playing a much more substantial part than his usual roles in Baker’s movies, Karagulian gets to drop in humorous observations about a younger generation he sees as lazy and directionless, obsessed only with social media and buying the coolest trainers. “I don’t have Instagram, I’m a fucking adult!” he snaps when Garnick suggests that might be a way to find the errant Ivan.

Madison plays Ani’s emotionally bruising experience with affecting poignancy, but the heart of the movie owes as much to the unexpected capacity for kindness shown by Igor, who’s supposed to be the designated muscle. Borisov, so wonderful as the soulful Russian miner in Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, plays the character’s sensitivity by stealth degrees, through to a closing scene that’s intentionally awkward but genuinely moving.

Again collaborating with cinematographer Drew Daniels, who shot Red Rocket, this time working in 35mm with anamorphic lenses, Baker gives each of the story’s principal settings — HQ, sleepy Coney Island in winter, glitzy Vegas and Ivan’s airy Brooklyn home — its own distinctive vitality, color palette and lighting textures. While Anora could stand to lose 10-15 minutes, it’s a very satisfying watch; the director continues firmly staking out his niche as a chronicler of the messy lives of an often invisible American underclass.

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