Directed By Janicza Bravo
Starring – Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun
The Plot – Zola’s stranger than fiction saga, which she first told in a now iconic series of viral, uproarious tweets, comes to dazzling cinematic life. Zola (Paige), a Detroit waitress, strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Keough), who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see it to believe it tale.
Rated R for strong sexual content and adult language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault
– Flourishing style. Like most A24 films, there’s an air of experimental ambition to the movie’s visual presentation that only brings forth a unique personality to the dissection, but also a psychology that fully immerses itself in the scheme of its first-person storytelling. Because of such, we are treated to 70’s style title screens, intentionally abrupt editing that pastes together a collection of memories, and a barrage of social media sound effects brought to life in some totally ingenious methods to channel particular emotions for the integrity of the scene and ensuing conversation. Aside from all of this, however, there’s a glossy grittiness to “Zola” that often plays cleverly towards this dreamer’s tale of rags to riches, and ultimately damning it with a documentarian-esque rendering in cheap, handheld cinematography that often emulates the kind of art imitating life rendering that stems from its mostly true story background.
– Ari Wegner. Speaking of the spell-binding cinematography decorated throughout the film, Wegner herself dominates the attention of the audience with a series of complex angles and lucid transitions that visually feed into the elevating unnerve that resonates in the foreground of these ambiguous situations. Especially in knowing that Ari was responsible for the visual success of 2016’s “Lady Macbeth” and 2018’s “In Fabric”, she too brings to “Zola” an almost surveillance style quality to the documentation, preserving us the audience as a fly on the wall with the advantageous abundance of situations and information that we feel privy to. In addition, Wegner captures the perspective of first person social media interaction from the angle of a cellular phone, and with the masterful editing piecing each delivery together, makes it feel like an in-person conversation between two characters sharing a connection ahead of the world that tragically underestimates them.
– Shock factor. Believe me when I say the less you know about this story, the better its appeal will be to your interpretation. I say this because the film delivers these erupting elements of surprises that aren’t even remotely predictable in the context of the spontaneous timing that they’re dispersed, giving us one of the more hypnotic watches of the year, if only for the way it fleshes out the vulnerability of its characters in ways that very few horror films successfully attain. This is made all the more appalling when you consider that a majority of this story actually did take place in real life, and bottled a consistency for chaos too perfectly gift-wrapped for the silver screen. The shocks themselves elevate in damage and stakes with each passing one, and better play into the magnitude of the evolving conflict, which constantly feels doubled down upon just when the audience feels like they have a grasp on where this story is headed.
– Poignant social commentary. Despite this being what I feel is a twisted comedy movie first and foremost, Bravo as a screenwriter, as well as her writing partner Jeremy O. Harris, construct enough meaning behind their material to vividly paint the matters of concern that their story so candidly converges over. The obvious is the disconcerning nature of female sexualization, and how their sexual acts are often defined, unfortunately by a man’s wishes. Without spoiling much, I will say that it’s depressing to consider that business matters like sex trafficking are as prominent in 2021 as they’ve ever been, often luring women with the possibility of riches in exchange for the permanence of contemporary slavery. Beyond that, the cultural appropriation of Keough’s character is most evident and intentionally illustrated to create an uneasiness with the audience asked to endure it. What’s most ironic is Keough herself is related to the late, great Elvis Presley, a man who himself was known as one of the biggest stone-steppers to stealing “Black” sound, for the abundance of riches that followed. So the correlation is so much more than a fictionally topical one, where art is in fact imitating the life that its casting bares a little too closely to the sleeve, for the benefit of its realism.
– Year’s best. This is in regards to the entrancing synth score from composer Mica Levi, who channels something out of a Safdie Brothers film to bring to life the nightmarish encompassing of this underground sex trafficking world. The ominousness of the tones themselves passionately elicit an unraveling uneasiness, especially when made all the more hypnotic by the elements of a scene inspiring the pattern of their compositions, but it’s the repetition of the electronic keys that gracefully age a maturity to the often juvenile humor that dominates the foreground of the story, and hints to audiences the depths of despair that these ladies will travel on their weekend far from home. This is easily my favorite musical score of 2021 so far, which in turn stitch together some of the more simplistically beautiful transitions and establishing sequences that build the tension before a series of inevitable pay-offs.
– Transformative performances. We knew after this year’s “Boogie”, and last year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that Taylour Paige would someday be a star, but we didn’t know that her emotional talents would be complimented by a physical dedication that affords endless believability to her character. Paige herself took months of stripper classes to embody the titular character, and it pays of with a sultry seductiveness that fortunately doesn’t barter intelligence for the sex appeal she continuously calls upon. Riley Keough is also spectacular and chameleonesque as the ratchet Stefani, a working woman with her own abundance of secrets to play to the irresponsibility of the character. Keough’s intentionally cringey vocal deliveries are right on point with a consistency for the long haul, and her manipulation to use people for matters she wants supplants a dangerousness to her occasional ferocity that allows us to see her in the same light that Zola learns about with each passing hour. However, this ladies show isn’t unanimous, as my long-time favorite Colman Domingo steals the show as a half Jamaican pimp, with no shortage of captivating line deliveries that articulate the endless charisma he exudes along the way. Domingo gets as seedy as he wants to be, playing through an exhillarating fun for the delivers that cements the consistency for energy that he brings to every role, all the while allowing him to shed one more layer to his talents that incredibly allows us to see him in ways no other role has previously conveyed.
– Brief investment. The condemning side of an 80 minute run time is that it barely has the proper time to afford towards much needed characterization. This is especially realized during the trivial first act, where we are rushed along to the conflict of the film within the opening ten minutes, without any insight or backstory towards who Zola was before her trip literally and figuratively went south. This not only underscores the magnitude of stakes and tragedy of the situation, but it also kept me from fully investing in the title character, especially since she’s probably the least appealing character the longer the movie persists towards its climax. For my money, I would’ve appreciated another 15-20 minutes of initial exposition, as well as some further emphasizing to supporting characters, like Zola’s husband, who are unfortunately forgotten about with each passing minute. It could’ve paced the film better during its inferior first half, but more importantly played to the realism of the real life figures, who can’t ever shed the leading of their characters within the convenience of first-person storytelling.
– Flawed story. It’s remarkable that a film can be made out of 148 individual tweets from the hands of the person who the lead character is based on, but with that said there are more than a few instances that wear the weight of its mileage the longer the story goes on. Such an instance is in a repetitive late second/early third acts, where the story grinds to a screeching halt, and remains dormant for around ten minutes too long, for my own personal tastes. In fact, there’s an overall disappointment to the screenplay when it comes to continuously advancing the plot that I feel unfortunately stems as a result of its true story enveloping, remaining too faithful to a point that it condemns the appeal of its entertainment factor, repeating scenes and lines of dialogue to a point that felt gift-wrapped for audiences who may have missed key matters in the context of the scene.
– Disappointing ending. “Zola” is yet another example in the growing list of underwhelming climaxes that abruptly resolve matters to the inevitability of groans within the audience. I say this because that exact thing happened in my auditorium, with one member even saying “That’s it?”. Where my problem lies isn’t with the halting of the storytelling, but rather the ambiguity with post-credit text that I feel could’ve added further intrigue to where these characters stand at the moment of the film’s release. To cut immediately to credits not only completely drains all of the momentum from the complex and chaotic movements of the story, but also proves wonders for the initial unshakeable feeling of one-dimension story that I felt during the first act. There’s an appreciation for keeping matters with the story honest, but sometimes honorable wishes like these don’t necessarily translate well to the silver screen, and that’s what’s happening here.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-