Directed by Janicza Bravo.
Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Ts Madison, and Jason Mitchell.
A waitress agrees to accompany an exotic dancer, her put-upon boyfriend, and her mysterious and domineering roommate on a road trip to Florida to seek their fortune at a high-end strip club.
Twitter is a cesspool of stupidity and extremes without nuance. The amount of times I have opened that webpage only to read an astoundingly shortsighted or illogical hot take (whether it be about movies, politics, or something else entirely) and close it within 30 seconds is up there in the triple digits. Alas, I’m also bringing you dear readers reviews such as this one for Zola (based on a Twitter thread detailing a ridiculous stripper saga) and have to grit my teeth while doing a combination of self-promotion and posting thoughtful comments about whatever I find important, hoping to not to see myself become another vessel for that rampant stupidity.
The point is that these characters embody the Internet, and the social media lexicon should be enough to grate and turn me away from whatever this is. To an extent, once these people started talking, I did start having an inner dialogue with myself; this is what received heaps of Sundance hype? Zola begins with the eponymous waitress/dancer (Taylour Paige, who excels at not knowing what to believe, conveying fear, showing support, livening up the narration to comedic effect)) narrating if “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” which is plastered all over the marketing and trailer, and probably the simplest way of setting the tone and dialogue expectations. The aforementioned “bitch” is Riley Keough’s Stefani, a fellow dancer. She strikes up a conversation with Zola while ordering food on a date, quickly sparking a friendship over every social media platform and planning a Florida vacation to make some good money at a hotspot stripper joint.
Zola’s relationship with her boyfriend Sean (Ari’el Stachel) appears to be going through a rough patch in one of several orbiting subplots, making the road trip decision with a new friend easier to choose. As they are about to embark, Zola is introduced to Stefani’s loyal to a fault and dimwitted boyfriend (more so than the other characters here), Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and an unnamed roommate (Colman Domingo). Without going too much into detail (the absurdity and numerous plot swerves inside a balance of danger and humor are the most potent aspects), Stefani is not fully honest about what she and Zola will be doing that night. Following raking in some good cash pole dancing (which, similar to Hustlers, is captured with grace and emphasizing the agility required to pull off these aerobics), Zola’s narration chimes in, alerting viewers to pay attention to every move Stefani makes.
Also based on David Kushner’s article Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted, from there the story introduces everything from pimps to sex montages to revelations about characters that may or may not even be true. One especially hysterical sequence decides to tell the story so far from the perspective of Stefani, giving Riley Keough a treasure trove of hilarious lines. It’s far and away the best scene in the movie, but it also speaks to one of the more frustrating elements in that, aside from one of these recountings clearly being much closer to the truth, there’s not much about these two to peel away and understand. One could also say that an inherent problem adapting a movie off of a series of tweets.
In the case of Colman Domingo’s character, this is logical (his identity is revealed and speaks to some horrifying truths about how women can get roped into uncomfortable dynamics, something that’s easy to empathize with regardless of how mind-meltingly dumb someone like Stefani talks and acts). For boyfriend Derrek, there is something sadder at play, as he’s a good-intentioned person who puts up with emotional terrorism for whatever reason. Unfortunately, the narrative mostly sees the character as a joke and fails to capitalize on his key actions in any meaningful way. As a whole, Zola merely ends without leaving much of a lasting impression.
However, the journey does make good on its promise of suspense. Director Janicza Bravo (writing alongside Jeremy O. Harris) also has an original vision, choosing to go beyond adapting the story at face value and infusing it with several audio cues that feel taken straight from the Internet. As a result, Zola never once stops feeling like a crazy tale taken from Twitter, even during slower moments prioritizing immersive sunny settings or the synthetic score reminding that, for as funny as things are, this is still a precarious position for these women that we nonetheless hope stay safe. Like Twitter itself, there’s nothing profound here (although with some tweaks to the script, there very well could be), but it’s a stranger than fiction ride worth taking.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com