‘Zola’ is a mad rush
In the 8th century, Homer wrote the epic poem “The Odyssey” and in 2015 a woman named A’Ziah “Zola” King took to Twitter to share her own incredible saga. In a thread of 148 tweets, she described a trip to Florida she took with a new friend in a story of strip clubs and sex work arguably more heartbreaking than Odysseus’s trip.
“The Story,” as it came to be called, instantly went viral. A feature film in David Kushner’s Rolling Stone followed, and soon Hollywood guys were haggling over the rights to capture that whirlwind moment.
The film, “Zola”, which hit screens six years later and directed by Janicza Bravo, is a deliciously dark and funny cinematic imagination of Zola’s epic. And most importantly, he preserves and maintains the most crucial element in King’s story: his perspective and his voice.
Bravo, who co-wrote the film with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, has a supernatural sense for textures, soundscapes, and cinematic tempos; she applies her sensitivity to this tale rooted in smartphone culture. The dialogue is informed by the text and linguistics of Twitter, the dramatic rhythms are piloted and broadcast by telephone. The digital tinkles, whistles and vibrations form a nervous sound blanket that covers Bravo’s visual style of carefully composed static shots and slow zooms, with bodies moving in and around the frame.
Mica Levi’s sound design as well as the score brings a sense of rhythm and whimsy to the film, which skillfully straddles the line between threatening and absurd.
Using Helvetica font for timestamps and title cards, Bravo references the digital origins of the text while creating a sense of urgency and impending doom, which is underscored by a pattern of gunshots rushing down the highway at Tampa.
Zola (Taylour Paige) met Stefani (Riley Keough) a few days earlier at the tables. When Stefani invites Zola to dance at a strip club in Florida, she jumps at the chance and gets straight into a black Mercedes G-Wagon owned by Stefani’s “roommate” (Colman Domingo), along with Stefani’s boyfriend. , Derrek (Nicholas Braun), with the ride.
After a brief moment of glorious euphoria, the bloom almost immediately disappears from the road trip rose, as Zola realizes that she made a terrible mistake in joining the odious and devious Stefani. Paige has the gift of an icy gaze that Bravo uses: the annoyance Zola feels is palpable.
But it’s not just about being stuck on a trip with someone you despise as the weekend getaway turns into chaos. Stefani’s “roommate” is his pimp, and he expects girls to work, not just the pole. Zola is too confident and in control of herself to be pushed into sex work by a stranger, but she stays with Stefani in a fraternal attempt at protection and solidarity, and eventually she becomes something of a madam herself.
“Zola” wouldn’t work without the cast, who are ready for whatever King, Bravo and Harris throw at them. Domingo is unsurprisingly fantastic, alternating between fluent conversation and a West Indian accent when necessary; Braun takes all of Derrek’s humiliation on the chin. But the film belongs to women.
It’s definitely a turning point for the stunning Paige, who has a magnetic screen presence, alternating between placid scrutiny and explosive explosions. Keough proves once again that she is unmatched when it comes to channeling a very specific type of white American woman. His work with accents and manners is masterful. It’s overkill, but it’s a film about storytelling, with its authoritative exaggerations that come with it. This is evidenced when “Zola” goes very briefly to Stefani’s point of view, based on an actual Reddit post that was posted a few days after King’s Twitter thread.
Zola’s authorship and Bravo’s respect for his storytelling make “Zola” a truly original experience. It’s a brutally honest account of sex work, often dangerous and rarely sexy, punctuated with lines, observations, and tales of Zola’s laughing moments. It’s a refreshing prospect that Bravo has been careful to preserve on screen because that’s what King and his Savage Story deserve.
4 out of 4 stars
Actors: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
Directed by Janicza Bravo
Rated R for strong sexual language and content, graphic nudity, and violence including sexual assault.