Directed by Janicza Bravo.
Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Jason Mitchell and Ts Madison.
Zola (Taylour Paige) is a waitress and pole dancer, who meets Stefani (Riley Keough) one day at the diner where she works. Stefani invites her down to Miami with X (Colman Domingo) to make some extra money. This is that story.
Zola is more interesting viewed as a tour deforce in technique rather than story telling. Classical scene construction melds with social media tropes, to produce something which is more inspired than inspiring. Writer-director Janicza Bravo takes a basic road trip narrative, throws in some fourth wall breaking and arthouse segues to produce a film which craves recognition.
Taylour Paige’s Zola addresses the camera, provides expositional voice over whilst simultaneously acting alongside Riley Keough’s Stefani. Their relationship is rarely friendly, frequently business like and intentionally impersonal. In the opening minutes audiences are informed that this film is constructed from 148 tweets. Meaning that dialogue is delivered with an accompanying sound effect, lifted straight from the platform.
Sound design is carried further and becomes a defining characteristic, as emblematic social media shorthand defines much of the substance. Perspectives are subjective and dialogue is designed around a soundbite culture which makes things feel unreal. Cinematographer Ari Wegner jumps from a detached stage play style of shooting, to an in your face immediacy via smartphone. She also embraces arthouse elements by looping images within a single frame, alongside specific sound design choices. An unfortunate side effect being that this story, which centres on sordid sex trafficking, is continually overshadowed by technical prowess.
Amongst the cast, Colman Domingo stands head and shoulders above everyone else on screen as X. A money grabbing pimp with an outrageous choice in shirts, as well as one nasty temper. His manner is demeaning, his intentions selfish and methods of discipline medieval. That he is able to fashion a character which engages and remains empathetic to audiences is miraculous.
Beyond that the dissection of objectification which Janicza Bravo attempts to address, is also robbed of impact due to this overindulgent arthouse approach. Sexual acts, although graphic, are empty affairs performed silently off screen. Meanwhile, men are rated in the same casual manner a person would browse Instagram, while any gratification gets nullified by that sense of detachment.
This approach distracts from the performances, diminishes the cinematic elements and strips away the artifice of film. In short, there are so many whistles and bells going off throughout, that Zola feels like a mishmash of invention, rather than something cohesive and considered. Although there is no doubting the talent of Janicza Bravo as a film maker of huge potential, Zola feels like a calling card or extended sizzle reel, rather than the dazzling debut others might have labelled it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★