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On her way to Tampa, Aziah “Zola” Wells’s road trip with a new friend would take a turn for the worse. Instead of hiding her misadventure, she shared it with the world in an epic Twitter thread that went viral in 2015. “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” She invited us all in, and we were hooked. Writer/director Janicza Bravo and co-screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris adapted that thread and David Kushner’s article on Wells’s saga into Zola, a dark comedy that keeps the audience laughing to stave off tears over the intimidation and danger our heroine faces on her ridiculous trip. Notes both sour and sweet keep the film emotionally charged through the lurid events, while Mica Levi’s synth score accentuates the story’s bittersweet tone.
It all begins when Zola (Taylour Paige) has a chance encounter with fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough) at a restaurant. Their friendship blossoms quickly, as they text each other incessantly. Then comes an invite to make money in Tampa, known for its many strip clubs and big-city clientele. Zola jumps at the opportunity but has doubts when Stefani shows up with a tight-lipped, muscle-bound stranger and lanky roommate (later revealed to be her boyfriend). But she puts aside her reservations and gets in the car for a lucrative night at a club. Instead she finds herself trapped in a prostitution scheme that brings her face-to-face with violence, guns, sexual assault, and potentially murder.
Thankfully, there are meta elements to break up the more serious parts. Zola is filled with the voice of its author as if we are watching with her unfiltered comments. Bravo and Harris have fun with the source material, incorporating Twitter and text message sounds into the audio. There’s even a sex scene montage in which the shots swipe up instead of cutting, ultimately erasing them into a blur, like an X-rated night of Tinder browsing. The camera also captures the mindset of the two women at work through their selfies and the ways they present themselves to an audience. They project sexy confidence in the face of low tips and racist creeps, but when Zola practices her pole work at home, it looks like a mundane workout session. It’s the difference between performance and reality.
Similarly, Paige acts as if she knows she’ll make for some excellent reaction GIFs, delivering a series of steely gazes in response to the bullshit around her. Her voiceover performance is equally sharp, cutting through the various characters’ lies and nonsense. In dreamy, club-like interstitials, Paige and Keough are locked in an allegorical standoff for control. Zola even sometimes addresses the audience directly. Even Stefani has a cheeky moment in which she tries to tell her side of the story (adapted from a Reddit response to the viral story). Paige may come out on top, but Keough gives an equally intense performance as a two-timing frenemy, the kind of person who can play dumb when confronted, but is conniving enough to rope people into schemes.
Like other Florida-based A24 movies, such as Spring Breakers, Moonlight, and The Florida Project, Zola is set mostly in places you’re not likely to find in a tourist brochure — strip clubs, shady motels, liquor stores. It also understands the “hotel hierarchy,” observing the contrast between the cheap motel where the characters stay to save money and the posh spots where they meet clients. Shooting on grainy film stock, Bravo captures a less pristine, shiny, happy Sunshine State.
Zola is such a breathless ride that by the time the characters are driving over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the silence is almost a welcome reprieve. There are so many layers to the story – from the social media culture that launched it to fame in the first place, to the potent racism and sexism the title character faces. You may already know how the tweets end, but the story is given vivid life and new surprises with cinematographer Ari Wegner’s sun-bleached colors and the cast’s erratic performances. Zola is a complicated ride that’s neither carefree nor seriously dramatic. It’s a messy combination of the two, which one could say suits Florida rather well.
Zola premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It has been acquired by A24 and Sony Pictures Classics, and will be released later this year.