Film Review: Zola
Co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo. US, 2020, 90 minutes.
Opens theatrically on Tuesday, June 29 (playing locally at the AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Regal Fenway, among other locations).
Zola is the most Florida movie I have ever seen.
As a near-native Floridian, that’s the highest praise and damnation I can heap onto a work of art. And the film is art, though I suspect its breezy, irreverent flow will fool people into thinking it’s just an A24-budgeted add-on to a viral Twitter saga about two strippers on the “hoe trip” from hell.
That 144-tweet thread, written by A’Ziah “Zola” King (@_zolarmoon), was lauded for its style and structure, using character counts as cliffhangers and emojis as drama masks. The film adaptation, co-written by Jeremy O. Harris and director Janicza Bravo, understands and loves this, sourcing its stylistic inventiveness and naughty sense of humor from the wealth of culture that is Black Twitter. With constant tweet-sounds, changes in perspective, and a very-online sensibility, it gives the feeling of being blacked-out, on AUX duty in the ride to the next club—all very Florida.
Those are the film’s settings—the Internet and Florida—and while combining the chronic lawlessness of those two chaotic lands would sink most narratives, this one stays afloat through Bravo’s firm-handed writing and direction. The Internet has a lot in common with Florida, and her Zola seizes on one of their major commonalities: the determined, effective power of hoeing—the philosophy that “pussy is worth thousands” (as the title character puts it while thinking of ways to monetize from a Tampa hotel).
It begins, as King’s posts did, with an invitation: Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? If you didn’t spend 45 minutes of your 2015 reading the stranger-than-fiction thread, the story is: Zola (Taylour Paige), a waitress and stripper in Detroit, meets and quickly befriends fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough), “vibing over our hoeism or whatever.” Zola is talked into joining Stefani, her loser boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and her pimp X (Colman Domingo), on a trip to Tampa, where she is assured she can make easy stacks at the local clubs. Nothing goes according to plan, and Zola finds herself trapped in an absurdist hellscape of deceit, sex trafficking, and Vine clips.
Paige is magnificently alive as Zola, with each simple, deadpan sigh easily worth over 140 characters. Her eyes are expressive like an Old Hollywood starlet’s, and she proves herself a delightful emcee for the fuckery that transpires. Opposite her is Keough, giving a career-best performance as the White Girl Who Really Needs To Chill. Stefani is her no-holds-barred character; the one that proves Keough to be a selfless actor, looking like a complete fool in the name of her craft.
Surrounded by a comically pathetic Braun and the always-golden Domingo, they are a match made in Florida heaven (read: Hell). By way of Mary Florence Brown’s funhouse-style art direction and Ari Wegner’s crisp cinematography, which call to mind club photos of the coked-out Scarface (1983) era, the cast becomes a postcard vision of Florida’s seedy true self.
At no point in this tale of strippers and sex crimes are its women not in control, or treated with respect. But actually no, fuck that, this movie is above ‘treating women with respect’—Zola goes further by generously feminizing everything it touches, acknowledging the thunderous femininity of its author’s self-assured take on her situation, and highlighting that to its advantage. Zola literally fucks her boyfriend into complacency before the trip, and that sort of command and deep understanding of self-worth defines the whole film.
Deep into their increasingly convoluted misadventures, Zola is asked to endanger her life for others’ benefit. She’s maintained a rather annoyed coolness throughout, but here finally asks, “Who’s looking out for me?” It’s all fun and games to spend time in the company of a Hilarious Black Woman—but must she also rescue the rest of us dumbasses from, not only boredom, but real peril too? The film answers with a glorious “no <3” and challenges other filmmakers to catch up to this truth. [★★★★½]