Review: Zola

Characterizing Zola, which is based on a viral 148-tweet Twitter thread that appeared several years ago, as a comedy makes sense only if you have a cautious attitude toward social media. The whole story chronicled in Janicza Bravo’s cinematic adaptation of the thread, as well as the experience of watching it all on screen (any screen), is fully integrated in language that mostly developed online (there are even scenes with subtitles in “standard” English) and attitudes shaped by the kind of interactions you only find on certain platforms. For one thing, I can’t tell say if A’Ziah King, the author of the thread and one of the producers of the movie, is endeavoring to tell a true story or is making this all up, because the medium itself is structured in such a way that receiving something related there as “reality” ends up being a chump’s game. And, in a way, that’s why Zola succeeds, and not just as a comedy: It owns its thrills and weird little moments as elements that organically emerge from the way this story is being told.

The story itself sounds Tarantinoesque. The titular protagonist (Taylour Paige) is a Black waitress who bonds, almost against her will, with a white female customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who has so thoroughly appropriated nominally Black diction and “attitude” that she comes out the other end as a kind of cartoon character. Stefani is a stripper/dancer, and when she finds out that Zola herself used to dance, she invites her on a road trip to Florida where she has some lucrative dancing gigs lined up. Zola needs the money, though her boyfriend is suspicious, as he should be. When Stefani comes to pick her up for the ride down south, Zola is surprised that she’s not alone but accompanied by two men: Stefani’s somewhat clueless boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, retooling his character on Succession), and an anonymous mystery man (Colman Domingo). 

The road trip gradually moves into dangerous territory, as Zola soon discovers that she is expected to do more than just dance, and that the gig, which the two women initially called a “‘ho trip,” is actually just that. Bravo expertly alternates the plot development between straight up exposition and Zola’s hilarious Twitter-like asides. Often the action is not funny in principle but made so by Bravo’s choice of camera placement and editing devices (most of the film is made to look as if it were shot on iPhones). In one scene where Stefani services a parade of white men, Bravo keeps the focus on the men and their pitiful exertions rather than on Stefani. Moreover, Zola, who is determined not to participate in these transactions, essentially gets out of them by masterminding means—using social media, of course—with which Stefani can make more money than she would normally get working with the mystery man, who turns out to be a pimp, and a typically abusive one. Zola even sort of saves the whole crew when things go really sideways after Derek naively befriends a guy on the street who thinks he has this particular stretch of Tampa sewn up when it comes to prostitution.

Just as Stefani’s accent is so farfetched as to pass beyond offensiveness, Bravo’s handling of King’s baked-in cynicism is so earnest and stylistically bold as to make the ethically problematic actions of all involved truly hilarious. Throughout the movie, Zola keeps saying how this story is about how she “fell out” with Stefani. That concept alone is so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh everytime she brings it up. Who would ever “fall in” with such a person?

Opens Aug. 26 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Zola home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Bird of Paradise

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