Zola (2021; Janicza Bravo)
By Daniel Barnes
“It’s kind of long, but it’s full of suspense.”
So begins #thestory, A’Ziah Zola King’s 2015 Twitter thread recounting a Florida “ho trip” gone wrong. However, while a 148-tweet thread epic for Twitter, the film version of #thestory runs a lean 86 minutes. Meanwhile, suspense is kept to a bare minimum, as Zola seems much more interested in style and atmosphere, although much of that is indebted to Spring Breakers, American Honey, Magic Mike XL and so on. The film debuted at Sundance in Jan. 2020, but it only premiered in theaters last week.
“Pussy is worth thousands.”
Electrifying newcomer Taylour Paige plays Zola, a Detroit waitress who connects with fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough). Their rapidly blossoming social media friendship leads Zola to travel to Florida with Stefani, her nitwit boyfriend Jarrett (Nicholas Braun) and an unnamed “roommate” (a scene-stealing Colman Domingo).
The roommate turns out to be a charming but terrifying pimp with a slippery accent who intends to sell the girls for pennies. Although Zola immediately implicates Stefani as an accomplice in the scheme, she still gives her protection and advice. Zola and Stefani’s liquid frenemy-ship is easily the most compelling aspect of the film, and Paige and Keough give strong performances.
While Zola is undeniably entertaining and often hypnotic, there is something unseemly about turning the true-life story of sex-trafficked teenagers into a glossy, Elmore Leonard-lite crime comedy. James Franco developed the project before becoming too toxic, and Zola often leans on the same quirkily detached meta-commentary that overwhelmed The Disaster Artist. Director and co-writer Bravo presumably brought additional layers, but she still can’t resist busting out the ironic song cues. All the cutesy and detached meta-commentary gets a little heavy-handed, ultimately undermining and trivializing the story’s dark reality.