Cannes 2024: Sean Baker’s Film ‘Anora’ is a One-of-a-Kind Sensation |

Cannes 2024: Sean Baker’s Film ‘Anora’ is a One-of-a-Kind Sensation

by Alex Billington
May 23, 2024

It’s always an especially exhilarating experience to stumble upon a film so completely unlike anything that has been made before that it leaves you on a cinematic high after walking out of the theater. At the midway point in the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, we finally get to experience the bliss of Anora, the latest film from American filmmaker Sean Baker. Anora is his eighth feature film so far, and he was already in Cannes in 2017 with The Florida Project (in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar) and again in 2021 with Red Rocket. This might just be hist best yet. France obviously loves him, but so does everyone else – this film has received the highest marks out of any in the Main Competition from all of the critics at this year’s festival. The film’s title is the name of the young woman who stars in the film, a young stripper from New York City named Anora who falls for a rich Russian kid after he pays her to hook up with him. On a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas they end up getting married (Vegas, baby Vegas!!) – but there’s so much more going on in this film than just that.

Anora is written and directed and produced by Sean Baker, who is telling another wild and crazy story. Up-and-coming young actress Mikey Madison stars as Anora, who goes by Ani in the film. It’s a star making performance and she totally owns it. She works as a stripper at an upscale strip club in Manhattan (called “Headquarters”) and also occasionally hooks up with clients whenever she feels like it. One day, a Russian kid comes in named Ivan, also known as Vanya, played by Russian actor Mark Eydelshteyn. He’s the son of a Russian oligarch and has an endless amount of money to spend – so he hires her and they start to spend more & more time together. If you watch this film closely, they’re both young & dumb. That’s part of the plot whether you like it or not. Ivan just plays video games and gets wasted every day, spending all of his time in his (rather, his father’s) mansion when not out on the town. After a fun New Year’s Eve party, he hires Ani to be his girlfriend for an entire week, then flies a group of his friends to Las Vegas for more partying, where they end up deciding to get married in a “let’s do it!!” hangover haze. And this is when the real fun begins…

After the debauchery of this opening segment, the “oh shit” thrilling side of Anora kicks in. His parents find out he married a sex worker and freak out – these are extremely rich, powerful people who can do whatever they want, including cancelling a marriage. So they make calls and get their local guy to send his guys over to Ivan’s mansion to sort things out – and get the marriage annulled immediately. They’re in love, so they claim! So this obviously causes tons of chaos. The accuracy of the characters, this entire situation, how it all plays out, is so ridiculously spot on it’s almost unsettling how Sean Baker got all of this right. It’s brilliant. The film is one of the funniest of the year, and I was not expecting that with this kind of story. Despite the very serious, very emotional stakes of what’s going on with this marraige between these two youngsters, there’s humor coming from every line and every happening and every twist & turn. The whole second half of the film is getting compared to Uncut Gems, which makes sense, but it also feels quite unique in the way it follows Ani & Ivan and three men (two Armenians + one Russian who work for his parents) around the city.

Sean Baker is truly one of a kind, making films unlike anyone else that no one else can replicate in the same way. Anora is not just hilarious but incredibly deep, nuanced, layered, intelligent, complex filmmaking that gets every scene just right. I’m still breathless with joy over this film. I’m still going on & on raving about it and the way it handles everything in the plot, understanding the emotions of each character along with the audience’s engagement in the story. It’s best going in not knowing where the story goes and what happens next in each scene because the THRILL is watching it all play out. The second half if stronger than the first because there’s so much more going on – and the implications of their young love, the implications of own predicaments, are explored. I absolutely adore how the film grows & builds & morphs into something more (profound) as it plays out. Yes it’s filled with NYC intensity & thrills in the second half, but it’s also actually building and progressing and unraveling with an immense understanding of people, not just characters, but real people. This is a special filmmaking talent Baker has and it’s also what makes his films so memorable.

There’s no way I can talk about this film without mentioning one of the best parts of Anora. Yura Borisov has quickly become one of my favorite Russian actors, whenever he appears in anything you know he’s going to be the best damn character in it (also see: Compartment Number 6). His performance in this is especially unforgettable. He’s the real emotional core of the film. Everyone will fall head over heels for Mikey Madison, of course, and she absolutely deserves the acclaim for her remarkable performance as Ani. But it is Borisov who begins to take over and become a vitally important part of the plot and, once again, I was not expecting this. The final scenes in Anora are so extremely important to deciphering the rest of the entire film, and the point of everything we’re watching anyway. I worry that many viewers will not be able to fully grasp what is being said and the explanations here. There’s a depth to the characters that is revealed in these final scenes that is astonishing, making this film more than just another exercise in romantic comedy or big city thrills. This is the real magic of Sean Baker and his films, this is the real wonder of truly phenomenal filmmaking.

Alex’s Cannes 2024 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


Find more posts: Cannes 24, Review

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Viva Las V’landys: Vegas party has started for the NRL but it is hard to tell if there’s an American flavour … yet

From Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas

If Peter V’landys wanted a party, that’s certainly what he got in arguably the party capital of the world.

Ever since the gates opened around two hours before kick-off there was no shortage of sounds, music, light shows, fun food and drink as the crowd slowly built before kick-off.

There was a DJ at one end of the ground rocking out the classics from ACDC to even Elvis Presley throughout the evening.

The indoor stadium, home of the NFL’s Raiders, not only provided the stage for one of Australia’s biggest sporting codes to showcase itself, but it was also a refuge from the atrocious wind that would have had many fans at a regular season game back home in Australia doubting whether they would even leave the couch.

The wind was reminiscent of a 1990s game in Wollongong, where balls were travelling backwards, which would have almost eliminated the effect of the high ball from Daly Cherry-Evans or Adam Reynolds.

Gusts reached a peak of nearly 100km/h across parts of the city, and any ball above shoulder height would easily have ended up crossing the state border en route to New York.

The American National Anthem performed before the NRL Doubleheader in Las Vegas – March 3, 2024.

Inside it was all about one thing – and it was clear that it was a rugby league event. Jerseys from right across the NRL made up most bays in the stadium; even fans not in the contest.

Parramatta fans were shaking hands with Bulldogs enemies, and Rabbitohs supporters were having a beer and a yarn with Manly-clad spectators – supposedly bitter enemies in the opening game of the double-header.

There was even a Wests Tigers supporter spotted on his feet clapping every line break and big hit, even though he had no personal interest in the score, except for his overall love of the game. It was like an Origin, but instead of having two colours, it was a rugby league kaleidoscope.

For the nostalgic fans, North Sydney was represented, along with one jersey from the old City Origin days. Many even made the trip over from England with Super League logos among the mix.

Foundation club South Sydney also had the honour of being the first out on US soil, with the famous Glory, Glory to South Sydney tune introducing the players to the crowd.

South Sydney and Manly supporters watching the Doubleheader in Las Vegas – March 3, 2024.

Then you had the vocal atmosphere of an NRL match – the crowd yelling their opposition at the ref “get him onside”, “what was that for” – and unfortunately for Sea Eagles fans, they received the loudest boos of the opening game. So, another country, but league fans didn’t seem more welcoming. However, Manly had the last laugh on the scoreboard.

It wasn’t long before the NRL had something to show the Americans; the opening set had plenty of big hits, fast gameplay, and later in the half, Jason Saab broke the game open with two line-breaks that had everyone on their feet.

There were plenty of light shows and entertainment that would compare to a blockbuster NBA or NFL game, giving the Aussies a taste of the American sporting stage (it wouldn’t be possible to get this atmosphere at Brookvale or Kogarah) – even if the fog from the fireworks lingered into the game.

One disappointment was the national anthems, which were performed half an hour before the teams ran out onto the field, rather than having the teams lined up, as they would in a finals game or State of Origin – and before many fans found their seats.

Allegiant Stadium NRL 4

Fans preparing to watch the NRL Doubleheader in Las Vegas – March 3, 2024.

However, the big question that was not clearly evident from the ground was whether this festive show of rugby league actually penetrated the American audience.

I mean, there was definitely some interest, a few stadium ushers who did get a chance to observe some of the action in between showing spectators to their seats asked what the loud horn signalling a ruck infringement was, why passes couldn’t be thrown forward, and how long the halves went for (but who knows if it’s just so he knew when he could sit down again).

A few more explainers on the big screen would have been nice, especially for those inside the stadium watching what was a brand-new game to them.

If speed was a point of difference in selling the sport to a new market, it was a case of blink and you miss it as the games changed over almost seamlessly and the Broncos and Roosters took to the field.

Manly captain, DCE himself was distracted at the press conference trying to keep up with the second game, and the elevator operator at the stadium was left questioning if it was indeed a second game – or a continuation of the first.

At 8.30 pm local time, and after 80 minutes of one game, it seemed no one at the stadium had lost any energy – or at least nonetheless lost their voices. Wherever you were sitting in the stadium, you were drawn in by the crowd atmosphere alone.

Even if it was sloppy at times, thanks to the off-season rust, all the teams competing in the doubleheader wanted to entertain.

On a field designed for the NFL, there were a few fitting cross-code moments as the Broncos thought they were playing the American game with shoves across the sideline – fans didn’t need to be a rugby league technician to get excited or voice frustration at the calls.

Nor when James Tedesco fearlessly came flying through after the short drop-out and collided heavily with Ezra Mam, the gasps from the crowd summed up how tough you have to be to play this sport. What would a game be without players trying to ‘bring back the biff’?

Even if many in the crowd will be kicking on in Las Vegas on a Saturday night, they had the perfect warm-up with the DJ’s playlist featuring the likes of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and Daryl Braithwaite’s Horses, showing no one had tired by well after halftime in the second game.

But it was only the entree as Brisbane kicked into gear and threatened a comeback with exciting passages of play in the second half – you could sense that a close game is what everyone wanted to see!

This was the atmosphere the NRL dreamed of, if nothing else, there was definitely a bang for your buck coming to ‘the footy’ in Las Vegas.

There’s also definitely a bit of curiosity among a small number of Americans here in Las Vegas about what the game is and how it works – but most of the noise, most of the show, most of the celebration up until this point has been Aussie-driven.

That’s how anything has to start, I guess, but ensuring that more locals come to the party in future years is going to be key to the growth of the NRL in this country.

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‘It’s an Aussie invasion’: Inside the NRL’s big gamble as rugby league rolls into Vegas

Amid the flashing lights and blaring signs of downtown Las Vegas, throngs of tourists are dressed in maroon, red and green, and red and white.

They call to each other in Aussie accents, pose for photos with lurid buskers, and keep pointing to the LED ceiling over the retro-inspired Fremont Street strip. It’s emblazoned with the words “rugby league in Las Vegas”.

The NRL and NRLW season launch has been repurposed as an event to welcome fans to Las Vegas for the opening men’s games, marking the league’s bold bid to push into America.

NRL fans crowded into Vegas’s retro-inspired downtown strip.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

A crowd of NRL fans watch players on a stage under colourful Vegas lights

The Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles, Broncos and Roosters squads are in Sin City.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

“It’s great to see so many rugby league fans here,” Daly Cherry-Evans, captain of the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, tells the downtown crowd after walking on stage to cheers.

The opening two games of the NRL – Rabbitohs vs Sea Eagles, followed by Broncos vs Roosters – will be played at Allegiant Stadium, which hosted the Super Bowl only a few weeks ago.

Players stop to take photos and sign jerseys for fans as they stride down a red carpet on Fremont Street.

Amongst the bright lights of Las Vegas, a player signs an autograph as fans crowd around.

Fans took the opportunity to get autographs.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

A sign for the NRL is seen with a lit up cowboy in the background.

The NRL’s Vegas visit is part of a five-year plan.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

“Good luck with the game, mate,” one man calls out to a passing Rabbitohs player, while holding up a red and green scarf emblazoned with the team’s motto: “til I die”.

Among the fans who’ve travelled from Australia are Andy Nicolopoulos, his mum Vicki Nicolopoulos and stepdad George Abo.

Vicki, George and Andy stand in front of bright neon-lit signage.

“Any excuse to come to Vegas,” says George Abo (centre), visiting with his partner and stepson.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

“That’s our game, so we’ve gotta come and watch it,” says Andy, repping a blue Bulldogs jersey even though his team’s not playing here. 

“We’ve got to represent the hood,” George chimes in.

“Any excuse to come to Vegas. It’s an Aussie invasion, there’s Aussies everywhere.”

A sign advertising NRL is seen next to the flashing lights of a casino

The NRL has taken a big punt in America’s gambling capital.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

The NRL’s game plan

A neon-lit entertainment haven in the middle of the desert; what better place for Australian rugby league to take a gamble?

The NRL has its sights set on the potential for new broadcast and sports betting deals, with a five-year plan to play games in the United States.

In Las Vegas ahead of the opening round, NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo says the venture’s a long-term attempt to gain American fans.

“The measure of success for us is how many Americans we have following our sport throughout the season, how engaged they are – TV ratings are really important in America,” he says.

Andrew speaks into a microphone with flashing vegas lights behind him.

Andrew Abdo says the America push is a long-term play.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

He won’t put an exact figure on the price of hosting the games overseas, but says revenue from ticket sales, sponsorships and local partners – which include the UFC and NASCAR – have offset some of the costs.

Around 40,000 tickets have been sold, which is more than two-thirds of the capacity at Allegiant Stadium.

Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the round to American audiences on cable. 

Building on a niche following

A booming American sports betting market is another drawcard. The practice was only legalised outside of Nevada less than six years ago.

Mr Abdo says the NRL is working towards an exclusive partnership with a sports book in America.

“We want to make sure we partner with the right partner, and a partner that’s going to help us win new fans – that’s the key thing,” he says.

“At the moment we have a very small, niche following.

“If we can grow that and get a couple of hundred thousand fans engaged, well for us, that is huge.”

The NRL organised an adjacent rugby nines tournament for the weekend, ensuring hundreds of grassroots American players would be in Las Vegas for the opening round games.

A woman in a yellow jersey is tackled by a woman in a blue jersey, with other players nearby.

The NRL Vegas Nines Rugby League Festival coincided with the league’s opening-round weekend.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

A man with a ball runs on a field with an American flag in the background.

The festival attracted teams from across North America.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Tiana Granby is one of many seizing the opportunity to watch the Australian league live.

She’s a Rabbitohs fan, and plays for ROOTS Rugby Family, a team dedicated to the African diaspora.

Her husband also plays, and their three kids are “all in” on the sport.

“It’s fast. The contact, I think it allows more opportunity for creativity,” she says.

“You know, once you’re off with a ball, it’s about keeping the ball, not getting tackled, so to be able to manipulate the defence in a different way than you are in union – it’s just a lot of fun.”

Tiana stands on the football field, surrounded by players.

Tiana Granby enjoys the “opportunity for creativity” when playing league.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Dustin Zerrer, who hosts a podcast about rugby league in America, has been commentating the nines event and rubbing shoulders with big Australian names like former Sharks captain Paul Gallen.

The North Carolinian discovered the game when he was up late one night in college; after “a few beverages” he stumbled on a cable channel showing the 2001 grand final between the Parramatta Eels and the Newcastle Knights.

He tuned in when Parramatta were behind and decided to back them because they seemed like the underdogs.

“I came to find out they were the heavy favourites, and they failed,” he says. “I’ve been an Eels fan ever since.”

Dustin Zerrer sits at a desk and wears a microphone headset and a baseball cap. He is outdoors.

Dustin Zerrer says his podcast and social media channels are seeing increased interest.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Mr Zerrer says the game’s intensity and its similarities with American football are its best selling points in the US.

He’s been observing a slow but steady growth in interest through his podcast.

“I think you’d be surprised,” he says.

“We’ve seen a big increase in the number of followers on our YouTube channel and on some of our other social media platforms that are actually from the United States.”

Betting big on a booming market

It’s easier to bet on sports in America than ever before.

Sports betting was illegal anywhere outside Nevada until 2018, when a decision from the US Supreme Court opened the door for other states to allow it.

Since then, betting apps have proliferated and sports leagues like the NFL have abandoned a previous resistance to gambling.

Betting is deeply woven into Australian rugby league.

About half of the code’s elite teams have partnerships with gambling or casino companies, including sponsorships splashed on jerseys. The NRL also makes a cut from bookmakers in Australia.

Advertising for rugby league is displayed on Allegiant Stadium near a main highway in Las Vegas

Allegiant Stadium recently hosted the Super Bowl.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

“The United States is many years behind Australia,” says Marc Edelman, a law professor focused on sports ethics at New York’s Baruch College.

But American sports books are increasingly offering minor league and niche sports alongside the major national leagues.

There’s also a segment of sports betters who will “bet on anything at any time”, Mr Edelman says.

“If most of the [NRL] games are actually played in Australia, it’ll allow things for people to bet on at times in the day where there’s nothing to bet on in the United States,” he said.

“I certainly hope that the driving force is not exclusively or primarily gambling. But it also is one more revenue stream and one more reason, in addition to all the others, that this might be looked at at this time.”

A bustling main street of Las Vegas full of people, palm trees and signs.

Sports betting has long been allowed in Nevada, and is now permitted elsewhere in the US.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

The rapid expansion of the American market is coinciding with pushback to the prevalence of sports betting in Australia.

“The way sport has changed as a result of gambling and wagering content is really disappointing,” says Carol Bennett from Australia’s Alliance on Gambling Reform.

“That competition is intended to go over to the US and get hold of a bigger gambling market than Australia.

“It’s really sad, and it’s sport at its worst, when you see sport being used as wagering content.”

‘This is my Super Bowl’

There are true believers who think Americans will take a genuine interest in the NRL.  

Former St George player David Niu, who has been living in the States for years, has always believed rugby league could take off in America.

He feels the time is right due to the NRL’s business success, current leadership and the calibre at the elite level. 

“I think to do anything great and anything grand, you’ve got to take big risks for big rewards,” he says. 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone who knows a little bit about rugby league to really get excited, and anyone who’s new to the game to get a good look at it and understand and be like, ‘this is something that I’d enjoy and I’d support’.” 

David Niu looks at the camera with the lights of Las Vegas's Fremont St behind him.

“You’ve got to take big risks for big rewards,” says David Niu.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

At the grassroots level, people are talking about the promise of growth.  

Sami Oliveri, from Tampa, Florida, is excited to watch the NRL live instead of via social media clips. 

“I have a feeling that just being there in person, being there in the stadium – I know the energy is going to be wild,” she says. 

“This is my Super Bowl!” 

Chasing American eyeballs

But sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, from Smith College in Massachusetts, has a blunt assessment of NRL’s chances in the US.

“I don’t think it has a prayer,” he says. 

“Frankly, we have sports leagues galore in the United States … and I don’t see a lot of room for any others.” 

The initial advertising for the Vegas round – leaning heavily on the game’s contrast with the NFL, particularly its lack of protective gear – is probably not as novel to Americans as some might think, he says.

A large, empty stadium with screens displaying 'Sea Eagles' in white text on a maroon background.

About 40,000 tickets have been sold, almost two-thirds of the stadium’s capacity. (ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Sea Eagles players train inside a large stadium with 'Manly Warringah Sea Eagles' written on a huge screen.

The Sea Eagles are one of four teams in town.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

“I don’t think there’s such novelty [with the NRL] that all of a sudden the light will turn on and people say, ‘Oh, this is even cooler than American football’,” he says.

“In fact, one of the major existential questions that the NFL faces in the United States is precisely that it is so dangerous already.” 

A more recent explainer, voiced by Hollywood actor and mad rugby league fan Russell Crowe, has been generally considered a stronger sell to American audiences.  

In his gravelly Australian accent, Crowe explains the ground rules while emphasising the way the game is similar to American football, and where it differs – for example, all players remain on the field for offence and defence, and unlike in often protracted NFL games, there are no timeouts.

Football leagues played in the US spring have had limited success; other sports popular overseas, like soccer, have taken a relatively long time to capture American hearts and minds.  

“The market may be a little saturated for a game that’s sort of like one we already have,” says University of Maryland sports economist Dennis Coates.  

He believes the NRL will need to be willing to lose money without any guarantee of a final pay-off.  

“It’s like buying a lottery ticket, in the sense that, you’re almost surely going to lose. But if you win – you may win really big,” he says. 

Additional reporting: Chloe Hart

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