My memory of seeing Zola for the first time a year and a half ago at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is so vivid, I was convinced certain recollections were possibly the product of exhaustion and high altitude. So imagine my surprise when seeing director/co-writer Janicza Bravo’s (Lemon, HBO’s In Treatment revival) latest work again recently and realizing that every crazy, sleazy, warped thing I thought I saw was real and even better than I’d recalled. This amped-up story of two strippers going on a road trip from Detroit to Florida to dance for big money turns into something mind-bending, hilarious, dangerous, and dazzling.
The story is notoriously based on a 148-part Twitter thread by A’Ziah King, aka Zola (played by Taylour Page, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boogie), a struggling waitress and sometime-dancer who strikes up a surprisingly close friendship with a customer named Stefani (Riley Keough, putting on an accent that “cultural appropriation” doesn’t even begin to describe). Within a day, the two have texted each other into a lather, and Stefani proposes the two drive down to Florida with her “roommate” (Colman Domingo, referred to as X in the credits, but I don’t think he’s ever given an understandable name), so they can dance at a high-end club for money. The three are joined by Stefani’s heartsick boyfriend Derrek (Nick Braun), and from the get-go, things feel off, and Zola (through very sharp narration) points out certain moments in her adventure where she was or should have been more suspicious.
The drive down is promising, with a great deal of amped-up music, singing, laughing and storytelling, with Zola mostly sitting back and taking it all in, attempting to understand the dynamic and exactly what Domingo’s role is in all of this. (He’s basically a pimp, in case you were wondering.) Not surprisingly, the strip club is a bust, so Domingo and Stefani set up a series of dates for Stefani at a bargain basement price that Zola hates being anywhere near. She understands the market for sex well enough to know that men will pay a great deal more to be with Stefani. This may seem like a point in the movie where things get dark, but Zola is such a source of constant electricity, it never allows the sex work part of the story to seem like anything more than Zola showing how smart and quick she is on her feet, as she sits on the sideline while Stefani takes on one client after another in rapid succession (a montage of the variety of male private parts that she has to deal with is particularly…memorable).
There’s a side story about Derrek, who is essentially left out of the loop and back in the hotel room because no one wants him to know what Stefani is up to (even though it seems pretty clear, despite his being a raging dummy); he makes friends with a local named Dion (Jason Mitchell), a relationship that comes back to haunt everybody in the film’s final act. Filmmaker Bravo is smart never to judge these characters for the line of work they’re in or how smart/not smart they are, but she also makes it clear that certain choices have very particular repercussions. She embraces the sleazy aspects of the setting, which allow her characters to feel shame. That being said, Stefani is a bit of a habitual liar and possibly a sociopath in terms of how she uses people to achieve her goals. For example, she says she is a prostitute because she needs to take care of her daughter—a daughter we never see and no one else in her life even mentions. Take from that what you will.
A particular highlight of Zola occurs about two-thirds into the story, when the film changes perspective and we see most of the movie through Stefani’s eyes; the film’s title even temporarily changes to Stefani, and it tells the story of a Jesus-loving young woman who was seduced by the sinful Zola into doing such terrible things in Florida (this part of the movie is based on a rebuttal post by the real Stefani in response to Zola’s Twitter thread). The sequence is especially fantastic because it shows us the true power of Keough’s range. She and Paige perfectly complement each other as Zola provides the story’s only steadying force, while the rest of her surroundings are pure chaos.
Shot in 16mm, Zola is a fully charged electric tower of a film, emitting lightning bolts of pure talent, excitement, dancing and music. The film never tries to throw in any sentimental nonsense—this is not that type of party—but that doesn’t stop us from caring about these characters and attempting to guess where their two-day journey of “hoeism” will take them and us. It feels like a wake-up call to a world I never knew existed, but now that I know about it, I’ll never forget it.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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