Review: Zola

By Christian DiMartino

In my eyes, there isn’t a film studio as bold or audacious as A24, and this feels true because not only have they never released a sequel, but also, they strictly only release original content that many other studios wouldn’t dare touch. If not for A24, we probably wouldn’t have got the Best Picture winning Moonlight, as well as The Florida Project and First Reformed (the two best as I see it), as well as Room, Spring Breakers, Uncut Gems, Good Time, The Spectacular Now, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Gloria Bell, Waves, Minari, Lady Bird, and I’ll just stop there, because as you can see, I am a fan. Their newest release, Zola, only further establishes my fandom.

Well I’ll just come out and say it: Zola is the first great movie of the still young year. That isn’t to say that you will enjoy it, because it is a vulgar, trashy ride. But boy, what a ride it is. Zola is by turns funny and richly entertaining, sometimes meshing the funny with thrilling. When it’s not intentionally funny, you find yourself laughing at how darkly funny it is, particularly because it’s based on a story that is bizarrely true; it’s the kind of story that is so nutty, it has to be true, and this time, it actually is.

Going into this, the expectations are high because it’s A24, but also, it should be said that the film is based upon a Twitter thread. As someone without a Twitter, this doesn’t exactly sound attention grabbing, seeing as most of the content on Twitter isn’t of interest. Yet the beauty of the film lies in its story, which truly is one that deserved to be told, but also in its approach. The film is directed by Janicza Bravo, whose previous work doesn’t ring a bell. Yet after seeing Zola, it might be time to reconsider. Zola is a firecracker of a movie, not just in its energy but in its tone, and it’s a symphony of energy and nutty exhilaration that is all the more triumphant because of the ingenious performances.

Said Twitter thread, which is unfamiliar to me, is prime material for a film, and while it might not seem like it, Bravo sinks her hooks in you very often. The film is told from the point of view of Zola (Taylour Paige), a stripper who tells us right up front what the outcome of the story is. Which, sometimes you wonder why a filmmaker would do that. Yet here, it’s all in Zola’s delivery that has us intrigued: this woman, and the majority of the people around her, are probably unlike most people you’d hang around… and yet, that’s what makes it intriguing. As the film opens, we spot her and a girl named Stefani (Riley Keough) and through Zola’s occasional narration, she tells us that despite their friendly image, these two are not friends by the end of the story. So the rest of the film follows this journey to the end of their friendship.

Zola is also a part-time waitress whenever she meets Stefani, and the two really hit it off. Zola and Stefani almost feel like counterparts, in their interests, the way they that talk and address each other (most of their sentences begin with a friendly greeting of, “b*%ch!”), and so on. Here are two women who, if I heard them talking on the street, I would keep my distance from- both look and as if they stumbled out of a trashy reality TV show, a-la The Bad Girls Club or Jerry Springer. Yet there is something about these two, and everything and everyone around them, that is magnetically watchable. Anyways, Zola encourages Stefani to join her as a stripper. The two have a great time excelling at their profession whenever Stefani insists that Zola accompany her to Tampa Bay to get in on the strip club scene there. Zola, intrigued by the money, is all in. Yet she senses she’s made a mistake early on, due to the company joining them: Stefani’s idiot boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her quote-on-quote “roommate” X (Colman Domingo). What transpires between these four, good lord, I wouldn’t dream of revealing. Just know that it’s about a two day stretch of sex, drugs, lies, and murder. You know, all that fun stuff (well, fun in terms of cinematic entertainment, that is).

What’s interesting about a film like Zola is that it focuses on a set of characters who, chances are, a normal audience member has never, and will perhaps never, identify with. Yet you also know deep down that, even aside from the fact that you are promised this is a true story, you believe that these people really exist. It might be a circle of people that would never dream of going near, but you know they’re out there, in the trashiest parts of America. Yet what’s also funny is that Zola herself isn’t, by definition, normal, and yet she feels like a wholly rootable human being compared to what she’s surrounded to, which makes it all the more entertaining.

Zola is at times thrilling and unsettling, yet as told from the eyes of Paige’s Zola, it’s also often pretty damn funny. Watching her journey, the audience is super relieved that they’ve never been apart of such a journey, yet they’re grateful that Zola has been, so then we can be entertained by it. Furthermore, Bravo’s magnetic filmmaking is completed by the flawless performances at the center of the film. Braun is a thoroughly convincing moron. Domingo is truly a force to be reckoned with and often terrifying as a man who will blame anyone but himself. Then there’s Keough and Paige, and honestly, these two performances are equal. Paige has had supporting turns in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and some other things, but this deserves to be a star-making performance, in the way that feels what we’re feeling, and we feel what she’s feeling. She’s also hilarious, and sometimes she’s hilarious without even saying a word, but there’s also such confidence in this performance that it makes every line reading click (much of her dialogue, I imagine, is from the Twitter thread, which is another unique aspect). Keough’s work is more familiar, which might make this performance stand out even more. Knowing Keough as an actress, my jaw hit the floor the second she starting talking, and it was often difficult to pick it back up. Zola is naturally funny; Stefanie is unintentionally funny, yet she is 100% herself (or rather, this is the persona she has donned). We see serious shades to her and we also often feel for her, even though we don’t like her and shouldn’t. It’s quite the balancing act, but it’s magnificent.

The film feels like the cinematic love-child of Hustlers and Good Time, in that all three films are a wild ride that feel like both an upper and a downer. Yet there’s also sprinkles of Spring Breakers in there, in the way that it focuses on such trashy people, and how in the eyes of everyone besides maybe Zola, this lifestyle is simply a business. Yet the film, despite feeling like those films at times, feels like its own wonderfully creative thing. The film is ultimately my idea of a great time; a film that maybe not everyone will go for, but brought me mild depression when it was over because it was over. Ms. Bravo… well, bravo.

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