Directed by Janicza Bravo | Written by Bravo, Jeremy O Harris, based on Tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King and an article by David Kushner | 86 min | In Cinemas
Lowkey I’m down with a movie that’s inspired by something someone wrote on Twitter, but I can’t say my expectations walking into Zola were particularly pumped, aside from the high esteem I have for what American indie studio shingle A24 tends to offer.
That could be part of the reason I was floored by Zola. It’s full-on astonishing, a both hilarious and deeply disturbing slice of American culture that you don’t often see on the big screen, certainly not brought to bear with such sizzling vitality.
A’Ziah “Zola” King wrote the Tweets in 2015 — and serves at Executive Producer on the film — her take on a wild weekend she spent in Florida in the company of a woman she barely knew.
Zola (Taylour Paige) is working at Hooters in Detroit when she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), one of her customers, and they click. When Stefani finds out Zola is a stripper, she texts her an invitation to come down to Florida for a weekend to make a bucketload of money dancing in clubs. Along for the ride is Stefani’s devoted but clueless BF, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her “roommate,” X (Colman Domingo), who’s “takin care of her.” In stripper language that mean he’s her pimp.
Once they get to Tampa, shit goes south in a whole new way. X’s sinister plans quickly become clear, and only because Zola is smart and determined does she manage to navigate the unexpected challenges of the first night and the subsequent, even crazier, one.
More than that I’m reluctant to say, but it is other level. Swear.
Every aspect of the film is crafted with care: The grainy 16mm look, the score with the dreamy, fairytale harp when the ladies are putting on their makeup, contrasting with the weird-ass electronic sounds when they’re driving from club to club to hotel to hotel. Even what they see from car windows in the Floridian landscape, from the massive cross standing sentinel over the highway, to the police officers beating a Black suspect roadside in the middle of the night.
As the characters unload bon mot after bon mot we get the telltale Twitter whistle on the soundtrack, a direct connection to the story’s origins. It’s so fucking deft, a stripper’s tale that’s also a literary lift: If the Academy had any imagination at all, this would be up for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2022.
Aside from all the craft details, what’s hella impressive is the way the film deconstructs prostitution. I’ve rarely seen that story told so matter-of-factly, both the sex work side of it, and the possible sex slavery side. Of the former, we see a montage of beefy white dudes taking off their shirts, and we see a collection of penises, judged. (No doubt that’ll make a lot of dudes in the audience cringe.) And on the latter, it’s crystal how X maintains his hold on the situation, the implicit, and sometime explicit, threat he brings.
Major props to the ladies. Paige delivers all the bravado of someone who lives Zola’s particular life, but you never have to guess what’s on her mind when she isn’t speaking. And Keough, who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, has carved out a brilliant career bringing sympathy to white trash in features as diverse as Magic Mike, American Honey, and Logan Lucky, Here again is another completely plausible and indelible creation.
As someone commented on the original Twitter thread, “THAT’S A GLIMPSE INTO A LIFE I’LL NEVER HAVE.” Hopefully most won’t, but the film’s worth a lot more than a glimpse. It’s a full-on announcement of Janicza Bravo as a new talent behind the camera, vaulting onto the list of the year’s best movies.