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Sundance 2020: “Zola” Is Raunchy, Riotous, and Challenging

Zola

Janicza Bravo’s retelling of the 2015 viral Twitter thread boasts great performances and surprisingly solid filmmaking, even if it ends on a shrug.

In 2015, 20-year-old stripper A’Ziah “Zola” Wells met a sex worker named Jessica. Both in Detroit at the time, the two bonded over their “shared hoeism” and established something of a rapport. They spent the night dancing together; they made some money. Fast-forward a couple of hours later and Jessica is inviting her to go dance in Miami, purportedly to make thousands of dollars in one night.

This, of course, wasn’t half of it. They got involved with pimps, some gang-bangers, murder, attempted suicide, and oodles of prostitution cash—at least according to Wells’ 148-tweet thread that went viral. She’s since gone on the record to say that she turned up some of the story to 11, but guess what? Now there’s a movie credited as “Based on the Tweets by A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King,” bringing you about what you’d expect and mostly for the better.

Granted, a lot of this has a lot to do with one’s tolerance for ridiculousness. Those intrigued are likely to have fun. It’s raunchy, crass, and stylized, and in the pantheon of stranger-than-fiction stories, this is one to stand out. But if you want a jaunt that signals good things to come from its newcomers and further cement the talents of those already established, this is that too. Zola is aptly aggro while also about something: about race, about class, about predation from the preyed upon. And yet, it runs wonderfully. Just make sure you’re ready for a few bumps.

Written by Janicza Bravo & Jeremy O. Harris, this is the kind of script that starts without much introduction. After a reprise of King’s first tweet of the thread and some quick introductions, we’re introduced to Zola (here played by Taylour Paige) and “this white bitch,” here renamed as Stefani (Riley Keough). Apparently, they’ve had quite the falling out, not the least of which involved the latter getting the former involved with her roommate (read: pimp) known as “X” (Colman Domingo).

Keough, in particular, is golden with her cartoonish (and often appropriating) accent, while Paige demonstrates a great deal of control in delivery that oscillates between deadpan and caustic.

Its creative choices are abrasive, so knowingly so that it’s hard to not get dragged in. Bravo, who also directed, is big on hard edges and symmetry to contrast with the overall vivaciousness. Keough, in particular, is golden with her cartoonish (and often appropriating) accent, while Paige demonstrates a great deal of control in delivery that oscillates between deadpan and caustic. The two have great chemistry, so much so that it’s as easy to get a rise from its dysfunctions as it is to worry about its implications. (It’s also easy to be surprised by how much Zola endures Stefani.)

But while Bravo & Harris’s script is disarmingly quick at first, the direction finds its stride. Zola’s narration is apt but never intrusive, carrying a conversational element that plays into the story’s origins well. Its more modern flourishes lend an ironic detachment when paired with the dialogue not dissimilar to online interactions, and yet Zola fully respects its protagonist as much as it satirizes Stefani. Bravo is fully attuned to the disparities latent to the women’s dynamic, and she isn’t afraid to hold on a shot to flesh out its darker themes. (One long take of a Confederate flag from behind a windshield marks a particular shift in tone.) Part of this also comes from Joi McMillon; her editing has solid comedic timing even though the overall flow can get sketchy.

The most pleasant surprises, though, come from the look and sound of the film. Ari Wegner (In Fabric) shoots the film on 16mm to give a ‘70s style. This thing is downright grainy throughout, but it’s a nice, almost ethnographic touch for a movie that uses Apple graphics to reassert itself as a piece of digital-age art. Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) even does the music, pulling from trap, southern hip-hop, and iPhone to make something retro but contextually fitting. It’s twinkly and tense.

It’s the script, then, that makes Zola stumble by the end. There’s a growing shagginess to the structure that makes the climax feel underwhelming and not as intended, skirting past its grimier portrayals of sexual exploitation. The scenes tacked on after that are even more extraneous, and when it ends, it ends on a total shrug. The 90-minute runtime doesn’t do as many favors as you would expect. There’s no denying the fun before that, though. That it has so much to back that fun up is something else. This is raunchy, respectful in its depictions of women’s sexuality, and—despite a few slips—oddly good-natured fun. Now someone book Paige her next gig.

Zola is playing in the U.S. Drama section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is to be released by A24.

Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."