Review: Zola

Director: Janicza Bravo

Stars: Taylour Paige, Colman Domingo, Riley Keough

There are many great opening lines in literature, in plays, in music. Lines that get you on the hook. Think about how ‘Heard It On The Grapevine’ begins with “I bet you’re wondering how I knew…” for instance. That shit’s got you paying attention. Zola intends that same level of iconic with it’s already meme-worthy opening tease; “You want to hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It’s kinda long but its full of suspense…”  Make no mistake. Janicza Bravo’s sophomore feature may be based on a thread of 148 tweets from A’Ziah King that tell of a far-flung long weekend in Florida, but Bravo and co-screenwriter Jeremy O’Harris have positioned their piece in the long and great heritage of American storytelling. It used to be songs and plays and novels. It still is. But now it’s also social media. Evolution is happening.

Evolution in the language itself, too. Listening to Zola (Taylour Paige) and her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough) converse, it is self-evident how the vernacular of Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook is reshaping the spoken word. Zola has a keen ear for this development, and makes a kind of messy street poetry out of how these young, enterprising women talk to one another. It is not an after-thought. When the characters are texting one another, Bravo has the actors speak their messages to camera, giving life and sound to the text-speak, emojis, “xo”s and the increasing shorthand of the digital age. Get highfalutin on it, and Zola can seem like the beat poetry for Generation Z.

But hold up, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Lets go back to the start.

“You want to hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?” A’Ziah King’s social media shaggy dog story caught the attention of Rolling Stone magazine, who featured it and her back in 2015. Bravo was clearly paying attention and saw it’s potential as a film. King is re-monikered Zola here; sometime pole-dancer and waitress at a diner who encounters Stefani by chance.

They hit it off when Stefani compliments Zola on her boobs “like apples” and it’s not long before they’re following one another across their various apps. Indeed, it is the very next day when Stefani approaches Zola with an opportunity to make some money down in Tampa dancing at a club she knows. It is this trip that makes up the movie, interspersed with clipped, deadpan narration from Zola, whose interjections sound like Quote Retweets to emphasise the sense of misadventure to comedic effect.  The 80-odd minute odyssey that follows has the wild unpredictability of Hunter S Thompson at his most devilishly anarchic.

This isn’t a story about doing drugs, but there is something keenly hallucinogenic about the way Bravo presents Zola. In the world as presented here, dancing the pole and the various ceremonies involved in getting costumed up for a routine are made to feel like trips through the looking glass, or over the rainbow. Mica Levi’s twinkling score suggests magical transformation. It’s comparable to the sense of fairy tale found in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, for example (itself all wrapped up in The Wizard of Oz). We’re dislocated from the real.

It is a story about sex work. Zola’s control of her situation ends pretty much the moment she gets into the car with Stefani, her gangly, cuckolded boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and Colman Domingo’s mysterious ‘X’; the driver and driving force behind this offbeat expedition. Chiefly, Stefani is out to make dollar in Tampa hooking; something that Zola isn’t about at all. And yet, it’s worth remembering that, before they head off, the film takes time to itemise how Zola uses sex with her boyfriend so that she might be granted leniency to go in the first place. She might not like to think of it that way, but it’s just as transactional as some of Stefani’s more entrepreneurial arrangements later on.

Zola may not like it, but she knows how to play a situation to get what she wants.

Bravo’s picture has no qualms about getting down and dirty and the actors are equally bold. Riley Keough has shown time and again that she’s a confident performer and the same goes here. Paige, for her part, absolutely shines as foil for Keough, and an immense amount of humour is channeled through her variety of indignant pouts and poses as things go from bad to worse. Domingo turns charm into unhinged aggression with disarming ease, meanwhile Braun might play stupid more convincingly than anyone out there right now – a career in comedy is his for the taking.

This is definitely “one of those Florida pictures”, tapping into a hedonistic sunstroke vibe, recklessly skimming the line between the lawful and the lawless. It’s characters may be apolitical, but there’s politics to talk about here, not least in how Zola herself betters ‘X’ at his own job; something that manifests both spite and respect from the man.

And there’s probably a conversation already happening about objectification. Were this film made by a middle-aged white man, it may well have drawn the kind of criticism Abdellatif Kechiche knows all about. But Zola is directed by a young Black woman. Does that mean that objectification immediately turns into celebration? Is the line that simple? But isn’t female objectification a core drive of female sex work…? The movie and its makers throw you questions to consider while keeping fun high on the agenda.

Zola harks back to the long, well-loved tradition of the campfire story; the winding yarn; the anecdote passed on through verbal tradition. Less about the destination than it is the journey. Here, the journey has a motor running on playfulness, brattiness and wherewithal. Bravo’s picture has a lo-fi vibe but it is expertly rendered, stylised and packaged for us. The vulgar pluck on display here won’t be to all tastes. The screening I attended had walkouts. But, from experience, these usually attest that the film in question is doing something right. I had a great time.

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