A’Ziah “Zola” King’s ultra-viral Tweet thread—AKA The Story AKA The Thotessy AKA Dante’s Infern-ho—about stripping, sex trafficking and the dangers of braving the surreal and nearly mythological land of Florida with a white girl you barely know, has it all. It’s hilarious and disturbing, with characters noble, treacherous and pathetic, damning voyeurism while encouraging our participation and spectatorship. The social media saga is also a treatise on storytelling. It’s been embellished, deleted and reposted after the dark comedy inherent in the compelling truth was honed for an audience—an evolving epic poem, technologically modernized. Naturally, writer/director Janicza Bravo had her work cut out for her when turning its garish and nightmarish weekend into a film. But she responds in kind, adding in her own tweaks and retellings to heighten the fable. Zola maintains its source’s compelling magic, transforming us from rubberneckers to spellbound participants along for the wildest cinematic road trip of the year.
In less capable hands, Zola could’ve been a movie of morbid fascination. But Bravo, who adapted her sophomore feature alongside Jeremy O. Harris, embraces the secondhand spontaneity of the vibe while immersing us in the humanity of its participants. We’re rarely looking at them, as can happen during the sleazy Floridian spectacle of Spring Breakers, but going through it with them. Sometimes that means empathizing with Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) when they’re feeling themselves, taking selfies in the strip club dressing room. Sometimes that means chuckling sadly when Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, whose clueless giant schtick gets a Malibu’s Most Wanted coat of paint) brags to a stranger in an empty liquor store that they’re in town “making shmoney.” To be fair, the group—which also includes an excellently terrifying Colman Domingo as Stefani’s roommate/pimp X—heads down for that exact purpose after Stefani platonically seduces Zola a day earlier.
But the shmoney ain’t for nothin’ and these chicks ain’t free, as the next days spiral from a simple strip trip to a messy collision between culture vultures, warring sex traffickers and an ever-increasing desire to get the hell home. It’s all embodied by Paige, proving herself an all-star, who’s as invested and committed to her tragicomic “How in the hell did I get here?” performance as Keough is to unpacking the ingrained, survival-driven cruelty prickling beneath the appropriation punchline that is Stefani. But she, like the rest of the film’s stylish punchlines (be they bittersweet, over-the-top or just plain nasty) completely lands. The more impressive part is that Zola provides so much to think about as your laughter slowly quiets down.
Highlighting the inner differences between the central duo is visual language as intimate and humorous as the way the characters approach their lives and professions: Rarely is the gap between two characters’ moral fiber communicated via eyeballed urinalysis, but a long shot peering into a pair of full toilet bowls leaves a single conclusion. Someone’s very soul is dehydrated. Bravo channels aspects of neon Michael Mann (if Mann loved to film asses), hinted at with a Miami Vice reference, and aesthetically flexible Steven Soderbergh while innovating a look specific to Zola. That includes one of the most inventive sex scenes I’ve ever seen, strung together into a simultaneously grotesque, upsetting and entertaining montage by editor Joi McMillon. Bravo and cinematographer Ari Wegner acclimate us in the whirlwind with every shot—even as some of these sequences mimic that dissociative feeling you get when you’re way, way over your head. As your intoxicated eyes cross, drunk on Mica Levi’s demonic striptease soundscape and the persistent app blips, and reality fades into pastels, the film does so with a tactile bit of grain. There is escapism but not escape, which reinforces the movie’s compassion for those actually going through its sometimes amusing, often harrowing hardships. Even for the assholes.
The commitment to dignity amidst the madness feels physical. It drips as single tears or a pitifully bleeding head; it flexes through impressive pole dancing inverts. Paige’s anger explodes past tight-lipped contempt while she delivers looks funnier than most movies’ best jokes, and every response carries the undercurrent of a trauma response thanks to her strength of posture and expression. The ensemble’s combative work is paramount in creating the buzzy stress setting us on edge, and Bravo and Harris capitalize on it by relentlessly hammering our tense nerves with silliness and absurdity. When the film ends, rather abruptly in a pacing stumble that feels like the main downgrade from the source material, we’re frazzled and emptied out—exactly the kind of feeling you’d expect from a work trip where everything went to shit.
But it’s not like Zola is a downer. It’s a scream-funny, internet-flashy ride that understands the melancholic and uncomfortable core to its story. It’s a movie that’s memes have already been made, and that integrates that kind of built-upon riffing into its style and narrative form. It’s a movie by a Black woman about a Black woman (that barely, blessedly avoided being directed by James Franco) that doesn’t just capture a nuanced and specific experience, but the rollicking and resonant digital audience that initially embraced it. Zola continues the fairy tale evolution of King’s story, passing the rich text on with the same outrageous spirit—a level of respect most adaptations only aspire to.
Director: Janicza Bravo
Writers: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Release Date: June 30, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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