THE STORY – Zola, a Detroit waitress, is seduced into a weekend of stripping in Florida for some quick cash — but the trip becomes a sleepless 48-hour odyssey involving a nefarious friend, her pimp, and her idiot boyfriend.
THE CAST – Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel & Colman Domingo
THE TEAM – Janicza Bravo (Director/Writer) & Jeremy O. Harris (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
If you were on the Internet in 2015, you probably heard of A’Ziah “Zola” King and her viral 148-tweet epic Twitter thread about a weekend stripper trip to Florida that turns into a nightmare. Given the inherent drama of the story and Zola’s own hilariously snarky voice, it came as not a huge surprise when the thread was optioned for a film adaptation (by James Franco, of all people). However, there was still reason to be skeptical. After all, when was the last time we got a good movie about a couple of mismatched strippers, let alone a good movie inspired by a Twitter thread, of all things? But from the moment Mica Levi’s genius harp-led score kicks in right at the top of “Zola,” it becomes clear that director/co-writer Janicza Bravo has way more up her sleeve than we may have bargained for.
As Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) put on their makeup in a never-ending hall of mirrors and Levi’s harp plucks gently in the background, the film creates an almost fairytale-like atmosphere. Then Paige utters those immortal words: “You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long, but it’s full of suspense,” and the inflection in her voice lets you know to buckle your seatbelts because this is going to be one hell of a ride. When Zola first meets Stefani, she’s the latter’s waitress. After talking some, each feels that the other really gets her in a way, so few other people do. Not even a week later, Zola is joining Stefani, her boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and her “roommate” (Colman Domingo) on a road trip to Florida to make some good money in a strip club. Zola questions her decision after spending a few hours in a car with them, but when they arrive in Florida, things almost immediately go from bad to worse, and Zola finds herself in a whacked-out Wonderland of guns, pimps, and all sorts of danger from which she can’t escape.
The craziness of the story is amplified by the film’s pace, which is constantly moving in strange rhythms. The fluid camerawork and quick editing are essential parts of this, but the real key to the film is its sound. In between Levi’s dreamy score and the booming bass of the hip-hop songs on the soundtrack is a near-constant stream of the inimitable “dings” and “tweets” that make it sound like your phone is blowing up. In addition, Bravo throws a whole mess of stylistic flourishes at the film, creating a thrilling feeling that anything could happen at any time. As a result, “Zola” is alive in a way very few films are, the hum of creative electricity underscoring every scene.
That electricity also crackles among the ensemble, all of whom do fantastic work. Domingo is absolutely terrifying as the mysterious man whom Zola only identifies as X, charismatic and friendly to a point, but move the wrong way, and he will put the fear of God in you just by removing his sunglasses. Braun is hilariously pathetic as a lovable doofus in over his head. Paige absolutely commands the screen as Zola, delivering a performance that should catapult her to superstardom. The subtle humor of her every reaction shot is matched only by the heartbreaking mixture of fear and resilient strength that creeps in as the film gets darker. It is a phenomenal performance, as Paige manages to hold her own as both a comedienne and straight man. But not even she can hold a candle to Riley Keough’s brilliantly bonkers performance as Stefani. The whole film lives in a kind of heightened reality, but Keough is walking a very fine line in her over-the-top portrayal. The voice work alone would be enough to make this an outstanding comedic performance, one of the all-time great masterclasses of scenery-chewing, but Keough’s true genius comes in the quiet moments when Stefani is so chastised and frightened that she drops the facade and lets a piece of her deepest, most authentic self come out. It’s a note-perfect piece of caricature that never once skimps on deep character work, and in that way, is nothing short of miraculous.
That “Zola” never once looks down on its characters for partaking in sex work while still putting across the danger of that work is pretty miraculous, too. Bravo’s deft hand behind the camera allows the film to be as fearless, entertaining, and cunning as Zola herself. Unfortunately, though, Bravo stumbles at the finish line, rolling the end credits when the story is still going and never really bringing the film to any conclusion. This non-ending is incredibly frustrating in part because the film is never anything less than fascinating to watch and has the energy to spare, especially in the first act. But in the last act, that energy lags, and the film just goes from plot point to plot point without luxuriating in moments as successfully as it had been. That the film ends up petering out instead of rallying for a strong finish is disappointing, but for most of its running time, “Zola” is as thrilling as any big-budget superhero epic.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A balls-to-the-wall twisted trip down the rabbit hole anchored by a star-making turn from Taylour Paige, with a supporting cast that goes all in, especially a fearless, never-better Riley Keough.
THE BAD – A non-ending that fails to satisfy or even intrigue.
THE OSCARS – None