Zola review: Epic Stripper Saga lives up to its outrageous source
A’Ziah “Zola” King’s ultra-viral Tweet thread – AKA The Story AKA The Thotessy AKA Dante’s Infern-ho – about striptease, sex trafficking and the dangers of braving the surreal and almost mythological land of Florida with a white girl you barely know, he’s got it all. It’s hilarious and disturbing, with noble, traitorous and pathetic characters, overwhelming voyeurism while encouraging our participation and our viewer. The social media saga is also a treatise on storytelling. It was embellished, deleted, and republished after the dark comedy inherent in compelling truth was perfected for an audience – an evolving, technologically modernized epic poem. Understandably, writer / director Janicza Bravo had her work cut out for her when she turned her garish, nightmarish weekend into a movie. But she responds the same, adding her own tweaks and narratives to intensify the fable. Zola maintains the irresistible magic of its source, turning us from thugs into spellbound participants in the craziest cinematic road trip of the year.
In less skilled hands, Zola could have been a film of morbid fascination. But Bravo, who adapted his second feature film alongside Jeremy O. Harris, embraces the secondary spontaneity of the vibe while immersing us in the humanity of its participants. We rarely look for at them, as can happen during the sleazy Florida show of spring breakers, but going through them. Sometimes that means sympathizing with Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) when they feel themselves, taking selfies in the locker room at the strip club. Sometimes that means laughing mournfully when Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, whose ignorant giant schtick gets a The most wanted in Malibu coat of paint) brags to a stranger in an empty liquor store that they are in town “making money.” To be fair, the group – which also includes an extremely terrifying Colman Domingo as Stefani X’s roommate / pimp – are heading for that exact purpose after Stefani seduces Zola a day earlier.
But the money isn’t for nothing and these babes aren’t free, as the days that follow go from a simple strip trip to a messy collision between culture vultures, warring sex traffickers. and an ever-increasing desire to come home. Everything is embodied by Paige, who turns out to be a star, who is also invested and engaged in her tragicomic “How the hell did I get here?” A performance like Keough is about unwrapping the ingrained, survival-oriented cruelty beneath the appropriation punchline that is Stefani. But she, like the rest of the film’s stylish punchlines (whether bittersweet, over the top, or just plain mean) lands completely. The most impressive part is that Zola provides so much to think about that your laughter slowly subsides.
Highlighting the internal differences between the central duo, the visual language is as intimate and humorous as the way the characters approach their lives and professions: a full toilet bowl leaves only one conclusion. Someone’s very soul is dehydrated. Bravo channels aspects of neon Michael Mann (if Mann liked to film asses), evoked with a Miami vice reference, and aesthetically flexible Steven Soderbergh while innovating a look specific to Zola. This includes one of the most inventive sex scenes I’ve ever seen, chained together in a grotesque, heart-breaking and entertaining montage by publisher Joi McMillon. Well done and cinematographer Ari Wegner acclimate us to the whirlwind with every shot, even though some of the footage mimics that sense of dissociation you get when you’re far away, path above your head. As your intoxicated eyes meet, drunk with the demonic soundscape of Mica Levi’s striptease and lingering echoes of the app, and reality melts into pastels, the film does so with tactile grain. There is escape but not escape, which reinforces the film’s compassion for those who are actually going through its sometimes funny, often heartbreaking ordeals. Even for assholes.
The commitment to dignity in the midst of madness seems physical. It drips in the form of single tears or a miserably bleeding head; it flexes through impressive pole dance inverts. Paige’s anger explodes beyond contempt for tight lips as she delivers looks funnier than most of the best movie jokes, and each response carries the undercurrent of a traumatic response thanks to her strength of self. posture and expression. The combative work of the ensemble is paramount in creating the buzzing stress that puts us on edge, and Bravo and Harris capitalize on that by relentlessly hammering our tense nerves with silliness and absurdity. When the movie ends, quite abruptly in a stumble that feels like the primary degradation of the source material, we’re exhausted and drained – exactly the kind of feeling you’d expect from a work trip where everything has gone to shit.
But it’s not like Zola is a downer. It’s a fun and flashy internet ride that understands the melancholy and uncomfortable core of its story. It’s a film whose memes have already been made and which incorporates this kind of integrated riffs into its style and narrative form. It’s a film of a black woman about a black woman (which has barely, thankfully avoided being directed by James Franco) that not only captures a nuanced and specific experience, but the enthusiastic and resonant digital audience that lifts it up. ‘initially adopted. Zola continues the evolution of King’s story fairy tale, conveying the rich text with the same outrageous spirit – a level of respect that most adaptations only aspire to.
Director: Janicza Bravo
Writers: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Release date: June 30, 2021
Jacob Oller is Film Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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