This review was originally published after Zola’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated for the movie’s public release. The movie is out now in theaters.
Logline: Adapted from a 2015 viral Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells, Zola features a stripper dragged into a violent maelstrom of a road-trip weekend by a sex worker, her boyfriend, and her pimp.
Longerline: Zola’s Twitter tale, and this movie version, both begin with an irresistible call to action: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” This is true.
Zola (Taylour Paige), a waitress by day and a dancer by night, meets Stefani (Riley Keough) while taking her order at a Hooters-like sports bar. The next day, the lanky blonde stripper whisks Zola off to a gig down in Tampa — or that was the idea. In a whirlwind of hip-hop and bay breeze, Zola finds herself in a crappy motel without a clue about what’s going on. Stefani wants to clock some time at an old stomping ground, but her clueless boy Derrek (Nicholas Braun) begs her to stay. And her pimp, “X” (Colman Domingo), has more lucrative plans, posting photos of the girls on a prostitution app, and undervaluing their bodies as he tries to sell them. Zola, brighter than anyone in her company, spends most of her first 24 hours looking for a way out.
But X has them trapped, and as the weekend rolls along, the situations become more extreme and threatening. Stefani becomes more compliant in hopes of making a buck. With a deep breath, Zola uses her deep sense of human dynamics (and male lust) to outmaneuver the people threatening her existence. The escape is a madcap caper through the pastel-streaked haze of west Florida.
The quote that says it all: “They start fucking right on the bed next to me. It was a fucking mess.”
What’s it trying to do? Writer-director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) treats Wells’ story like it’s Shakespeare, preserving the voice and percussive pace of the Twitter thread through fully flexed cinematic language. Bravo regularly quotes the tweets as dialogue, and adds an iPhone ding for extra dizziness. A highway-cruising singalong to Migos’ “Hannah Montana” splices in GoPro footage for full party immersion. Bravo embraces Florida’s unofficial film aesthetic, a diffused, colorful look that somehow served both Moonlight and Spring Breakers, but still finds room for the polarizing comedic edge that made Lemon such a delight. That is to say, Zola contains a montage of aging penises flopping out of unbuttoned pants, and it’s both hysterical and well-photographed.
Still, there’s nothing glib about Zola — and there could have been. Bravo’s main character is a black woman, a stripper, a social-media user, and a young woman trying to make it in this world. In any other movie, she’d be undervalued. Here, she’s the hero we’re asked to get behind.
Does it get there? So many filmmakers come to mind when the credits roll on Zola: Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrea Arnold, Martin Scorsese, and even Hollywood Shuffle director Robert Townsend — people known for synthesizing image and script, comedy and thrills, the personal and universal. Zola works at that level, with Bravo’s vision empowering Paige’s observant-but-active lead performance.
But like Uncut Gems and The Farewell, Zola is the product of a new generation of filmmakers, late-age millennial auteurs who don’t need to bow down to the past and settle for pastiche. For Bravo, that means conveying the stress of our current moment, whether it’s a rap track devolving into Mica Levi-composed ambience, or letting the dialogue rip in loud, near-unintelligible ways. Zola is a confident film with a confident protagonist, and the agency on display is infectious.
What does that get us? It’s odd: Nearly 10 years after The Social Network gave our glued-to-screens society an origin story, few filmmakers have reflected the experience of social media without being literal. (Sorry, Unfriended.) Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) do just that, channeling the energy of the Extremely Online life into a crime thriller. The plot scrolls from beginning to end. Genuine romance zips between texts, while abject terror bursts through the personification of shitposting. There are Reply Guys and catfish and people SCREAMING IN CAPS LOCK. And then there’s Stefani, the embodiment of appropriation, laying on a thick “blaccent” even when she’s exerting white privilege to survive. Zola is the movie of our times, and Bravo bakes every idea into the script and visuals.
The most meme-able moment: Much like on Succession, every line that comes out of Nicholas Braun is gold. We won’t spoil them.