Zola begins just as A’ziah “Zola” King’s alluring 144-part Twitter thread began: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” She’s not lying. Anyone who read the viral tweets from October 2015 remembers the story. It’s hard to forget about an ex-stripper Hooters waitress who was forced into prostitution after unknowingly volunteering for a suicide mission with strangers (and one supposed friend) that traversed mansions, motels, and countless ravenous men.
That’s the odious driving force behind second-time writer-director Janicza Bravo’s hotly-anticipated film: men — men so intoxicated by their own glorified sense of significance and authority, they’re willing to kidnap women and sell them into sex work; or, men so pathetically desperate in their wolfish hunger, they’re willing to pay $500 for “a white one.” But driving force does not mean center stage. Make no mistake, this is a story about women, two in particular: Zola and Jessica.
For those who didn’t read the thread, here’s the brief overview: Zola (Taylour Paige) agrees to go on a road trip to Florida with Jessica (Riley Keough), a friend she made 24 hours prior, only to realize that the trip isn’t what it was supposed to be. On the contrary, it’s an absolute nightmare, the kind you don’t expect to unfold in a playful, comedic manner. That is until you read Zola’s tweets, which triumphed through the same uproarious tone in which Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris rightly chose to adapt the film.
The first hour of the film is gut-busting — scrawny white men telling Zola she looks like Whoopi Goldberg (no resemblance), other scrawny white men (namely a perfectly cringe-worthy Nicholas Braun) suffocating in pure buffoonery, strippers praying for good men (“and if he got good credit, Lord, we know you sendin’ a big dick, too.”) — just like the original tweets, whose humor was a major drawing point. The obvious difference between the story then and now is the medium.
Where Zola only had Twitter, Bravo has the playground of film, and by god does she utilize it. Her direction is pioneer and imbued with sincere fascination. She frames the narrative through phone sounds and functions that keep us intrigued and on our toes for most of the film. Daydreams drift into screensavers, tweet sound effects mark mini-chapters in the story, and phone cameras offer different angles and perspectives in the moment.
She’s playful in other ways that are less innovative yet just as apt. For example, the frame often freezes (with the accompanying sound of a screen capture) and Zola chimes in with commentary like, “It’ll be 24 hours before I learn this bitch’s name,” or “They started fuckin, it was gross.” At one point, there’s a movie within the movie. At another, there’s a montage of penises that file through like individual frames that make up a film reel.
Unfortunately, Zola peaks early. At some point in the last 30 minutes, the intrigue of the narrative fades exponentially. It becomes too dire to laugh at and too repetitive to renew interest. Its explicit and vulgar nature is both effective and hilarious through most of the film, but that’s usually due to shock, and by the end, that shock is operating on minimal voltage. Regardless, Paige and Keough hold their own with what they’re given.
The first thing Jessica ever says to Zola is, “You have perfect titties!” It’s the role Keough was born to play, and she absolutely crushes it. Jessica is a Floribama Shore iteration of Keough’s white trash American Honey goddess but without power, influence, or wit. She dons braided hair reminiscent of middle school girls’ post-spring-break souvenirs, shows mastery in the craft of playing dumb, and rarely says something that doesn’t garner a belly laugh.
Zola sees through her, but not until she’s in the custody of X (Colman Domingo), Jessica’s hegemonizing pimp. Paige’s performance is terrific, too, but the role doesn’t have as much to work with. Seeing as Zola’s attitude for 80 of the 90 minutes is a blend of hushed fury and detached bewilderment, she spends a lot of time off to the side of the room, arms crossed, lips pursed, eyes glaring at Jessica.
Mica Levi’s score (only her fifth) draws out that bewilderment to great effect by fusing fantasy, wonder, and incubus in a glittery, popping, chimerical score. The first sound we hear in Zola is the twinkling sound of someone walking up and down scales on a phantasmagorical instrument in the background as the camera lays image on top of image, mirror on top of mirror, as if we’ve been thrust into a carnival exhibit. And in a sense, that’s what Zola is: an immersive 90-minute carnival ride that’s equally unbelievable and true, hysterical and dark, wonderful and (occasionally) dull.