Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Janicza Bravo
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo.
Filmmakers have drawn inspiration from lots of different sources, from novels and plays through to television shows, magazine or newspaper articles, historical events and biographies, but Zola is the first film to be inspired by a viral twitter feed.
In 2015, A’Zia King, a waitress working at Hooters in Detroit, took a weekend road trip to Florida to earn some extra cash by stripping at a nightclub, but the trip descended into a nightmare as she found herself drawn into a world of prostitution and danger. King sent a series of 148 tweets during the trip that went viral and attracted a lot of attention from followers. Later, Rolling Stone magazine journalist David Kushner interviewed a number of people involved in the story and published an article entitled Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind The Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.
The film begins when waitress Zola (played with verve by Taylour Paige, from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, etc) meets brash, trash talking Stefani (Riley Keough, from The Lodge, etc) at Hooters and strikes up a friendship. Stefani invites Zola to accompany her on a weekend trip to Florida promising easy money dancing and stripping at a couple of night clubs. But when Zola meets up with Stefani at the start of the journey, she finds they will be accompanied by X (Colman Domingo), her somewhat mysterious and vaguely menacing roommate who turns out to be her pimp, and Derrek (Nicholas Braun, from tv series Succession, etc), her naïve, gullible and insecure boyfriend.
As the weekend progressed Zola found herself trapped in a dangerous world of prostitution, but thankfully her street smarts and sassy attitude allowed her to deal with the situation and work it to both Stefani’s and her advantage.
Zola is the sophomore feature from writer/director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, etc). The independent filmmaker first read King’s tweets in 2015 and has spent three years trying to bring the story to the screen. The film has been cowritten by actor turned writer Jeremy O Harris; this is the first screenplay for the playwright who has written a number of stage plays including the Tony nominated Slave Play. And while the pair have often used the language of King’s original tweets to shape the story, they have obviously taken some liberties to flesh out the story and make the material more entertaining. There is a streak of unexpected black humour running throughout the material.
But this is a film primarily shaped by the ethos and aesthetic of the digital era and social media generation. Early on the dialogue is so dumbed down, reflecting the empty language of the twitter generation, and it grated, and I had just about tuned out. Thankfully though the film became a little more engaging and compelling as it went on. The film has been crisply shot on 16mm by Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner (the recent The Power Of The Dog, etc), which gives the material a glossy and vibrant surface that belies its darker troubling subject matter. There are also some quite graphic and explicit images that will certainly make for uncomfortable viewing for the older generation.
In most of her short films and her previous feature Bravo deals with insufferable characters, and the majority of characters we meet here are thoroughly objectionable and unlikeable. Nonetheless, the film is driven by the two sensational lead performances. Paige has a strong and confident screen presence as the sassy Zola. As Stefani Keough has a deliberately grating and off-putting presence and she is so effective that you spend most of the film wanting to strangle her. And Braun is also very good as the clueless and rather pathetic Derrek.
This film treatment of that weekend provides an eye-opening look at the sleazy underbelly of America and the dynamics of the sex industry. The subject matter is distasteful and abrasive, and leaves a nasty aftertaste, but Zola certainly has an energy to it thanks to the sharp editing of Bravo’s regular collaborator Joi McMillon. However, this is film that will not appeal to an older audience.
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