June 29th, 2021
STARRING: TAYLOUR PAIGE, RILEY KEOUGH, COLMAN DOMINGO, NICHOLAS BRAUN, JASON MITCHELL
DIRECTED BY: JANICZA BRAVO
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Something I would like to get away from in my viewing of cinema is declaring something as the “film of the moment”. Janica Bravo’s Zola is making that effort incredibly difficult. There might not be an easier way to describe this story other than momentous. It’s based on the 2015 Twitter thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King, an exotic dancer, telling the world about a trip she took to Florida with a new friend, both with intentions on making more money at new clubs, which quickly turned into a strange and chaotic experience. It’s one of those, “how could this be true?” kind of tales, where the people involved seem like cartoon characters, but it’s actually just the reality we are living in. Zola is the perfect example of who humans have become, living in a vapid, instant, and dangerous world. Nobody is who they say they are and you can’t trust a single solitary soul. It all seems surreal, so out there that it has to be true, and at least it makes for an entertaining movie because Zola is fantastic.
The title character Zola is played spectacularly by Taylour Paige, and we first meet her serving tables at a restaurant, where she has the pleasure of meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), sitting at a table across from a man that’s clearly not her boyfriend. The connection is brief, but as Stefani puts it, “We are already best friends”, and it’s not long before she is inviting Zola to go on this trip to Florida. Zola believes it’s just a fun weekend of work and more cash. It’s all of the other details left out that may have been important. Stefanie arrives with her weak, incredibly clueless “boyfriend” Derek (Nicholas Braun), and a man named X (Colman Domingo), who is a combo of her pimp, possible drug dealer, and unpredictable character. The trip only becomes more chaotic, dangerous, and entrapment that borders on kidnapping. It’s the kind of story that Twitter could never fully do it justice.
One of the fascinating factors for myself watching Zola was that I hated director Janicza Bravo’s first film Lemon. What a difference it makes from one film to the next. The blanket theme about Zola is the entire concept of identity and what it means to be yourself. The only character that stays true to themselves is Zola, expecting to have fun, but careful to keep her guard up against people she doesn’t fully know. The character of Stefani is the louder, more intriguing study; A woman that has never been confident in herself, often using her sexuality and other people for her own personal gain, specifically Derek, and then turns around and is taken advantage of by a violent man like X. All three characters, Stefanie, X, and Derek are shapeshifters. X appears as a strong face, starting with one accent, and shifting between a Jamaican sounding voice. He also crumbles when Zola pushes back against his threats. Derek is more transparent, pretending to be standing up for himself when Stefani offers her body to other men, and then quickly retreating to his cowardly corner. It’s that constant changing, constant unpredictable nature of these characters that keeps Zola never dull, always thrilling.
The screenplay co-written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris is a winding road of what is happening in the United States of America. The second act shifts into Zola’s head, trapped in this situation, threatened by X to offer herself to men, but never letting those around her have full control. It’s here when Stefani becomes the person giving random men comfort for a small fee, but it’s Zola who shows her just exactly how much money can be made from the horny suckers of the world. It’s that harsh reality that elevates the material above just satire or fantasy. It could only exist in the world we live in now, where access is instant. The cinematography is a mixture of the world, both inside and out. Cops arrest men on the side of the road, while the rest of the world commits crimes while they drive by. Meanwhile the wealthy spend their money on nothing of worth. Along with that, the camera’s major focus is capturing Zola and Stefanie in their divided states, in split screens, coated in neon lights, shining above, mirrors reflecting the dual personalities, where one is the dark side, and the other is looking for the light.
There may be a bit of vagueness to the narrative in what I’ve explained about Zola, but it’s much better to go in fresh, unaware of what exactly happened in this story. There’s still a bit of mystery of exactly how things developed on this trip, where it becomes a she said-she said scenario. That’s beside the point really. What we get is a spectacularly directed film from Janicza Bravo, with four unmistakeable performances from all the major players. It’s reminiscent of films such as BlacKKKlansman, American Honey, or Uncut Gems. Above all, it’s a back and forth, constantly impressive expression of acting from Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. Have their Oscar nominations ready because they make Zola absolutely unforgettable.
ZOLA IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS JUNE 29TH
Written by: Leo Brady