Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Zola is a lot of things. It is based on a Twitter thread. It is a comedy. It is a nightmare. It is a fantasy. It is a striking look at female trauma. It is a promising debut from director Janicza Bravo. Zola is flawed but more often than not, it is the most exciting and inventive American film of the year.
The film begins as the Twitter thread from 2015 did, "You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?" The narrator here is Zola, aka A'ziah King, a Hooters waitress and part-time stripper who meets Stefani, a "white bitch" who drags her into a world of sex work and violence in Florida. The film keeps close to its source, even using "tweet" sound effects when the film directly references the source material.
Taylour Paige plays Zola and if this film doesn't help put her on more people's radars, I am going to go rant on Twitter. She is captivating, giving the film the in-road into this crazy tale. Things get wild but Paige always keeps Zola a grounded character who is smarter and more aware than anyone around her. She is wholly believable in the role, giving the character real dimensions which could not have been present in the Twitter thread.
Riley Keough plays Stefani with a singularity akin to Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project. In fact, Zola has some of the same spirit and frantic on-the-street energy as Sean Baker's films. The two leads play off each other to great effect. Keough has to balance playing Stefani as someone so "extra" that she seems unreal while making her completely believable. She has a knack for portraying "white trash", see American Honey.
Stylistically the film is inventive and playful. Dings and chirps of social media blend seamlessly into Mica Levi's synth score. The film regularly references cell phones by having dates and times appear in the same location and font as they do on an iPhone Home Screen. This all could be gimmicky but it fits the story so well that it has the opposite effect, it feels authentic.
The supporting cast is also very good. Succession's cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) shows up as Stefani's cuckolded boyfriend Derrek. He is the epitome of someone who has grown up listening to only Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. Like Stefani, he also appropriates Black culture. Colman Domingo is thrilling as her pimp.
The flawed part of Zola comes with the narrative. The film is a wild ride that has many unforgettable moments. However, they don't culminate into anything. This is a shortcoming of the source material. The film has no ending. It is a shame the filmmakers couldn't figure out a way to stay true to the real-life account but also find a way to end the film. It literally stops before arriving anywhere. Along the way though, the film tackles many aspects of female trauma. Men are seen as either violent and aggressive or whiny and incapable. I keep thinking about these aspects long after the film ended.
Zola features a wonderful cast full of great performances. Bravo brings so much style and creativity to filmmaking as well. It is exciting to watch and constantly shocking however, Zola needs a third act badly. It ends up leaving you a little underwhelmed when so much of the film has impressed.