The buzz was already strong by the time Zola, from director Janicza Bravo, had its press and industry premiere at Sundance on Friday night. If you didn’t arrive a half-hour early you didn’t get in. Could it be that all these people liked her 2017 feature debut, Lemon as much as I did? Doubtful. Buncha posers. Posers and phonies, these Hollywood types — don’t get me started.
No, more likely it was because this is the first movie (to my knowledge) to be based on a stripper’s viral tweet thread. That thread, from 2015, began with “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” and continued for either 144 (per the movie) or 148 (according to a Rolling Stone article) wildly entertaining tweets. In it, the titular (heh) Zola, aka A’ziah King, a Hooters waitress and part-time exotic dancer, gets roped into a grimy underworld saga of sex trafficking, cuckoldry, violence, and constant buffoonery — all thanks to a “white bitch” named Jessica she met at work (never trust a Jessica).
Taylour Paige plays Zola in the film, narrating with the help of freeze frames, constant text and tweet sound effects, and occasional fourth-wall breaking computer motifs, like a screensaver coming up on the screen when Zola mentally disassociates. While on the job at the restaurant, Zola meets Jessica, played by Riley Keough, who immediately flirts with Zola in an exaggerated blaccent, which Zola partly reciprocates. As the movie goes on, the slang starts to soften any time the two get sincere, with hood-speak functioning as a kind of insincerity patois in the script, adapted by Bravo and playwright Jeremy O. Harris.
Stylistically, all the dings and chirps and swoops and occasional Tim & Eric-style rhythmic editing tricks can be overwhelming, but then, what are sex workers if not overwhelmingly stylized? Riley Keough walks a tightrope as Jessica, portraying her as an intensely annoying pain in the ass, a person who defines “extra,” but in a way that’s believable and true to the character. It’s a larger issue with the movie industry that the scions of our most rich and famous families (Keough is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) consistently end up portraying our poorest “white trash” — but it’s hard to complain when it’s Riley Keough, one of our finest young actors (please drop everything and go see her in Under The Silver Lake or American Honey if you haven’t already). In fact there’s kind of a perfect symmetry of having the granddaughter of the world’s most famous purveyor of black music play a character whose central feature is idolization and appropriation of black culture.
It’s also a treat when Succession‘s cousin Greg, aka Nicholas Braun, shows up as Jessica’s sad-sack, idiot boyfriend, Derrek, sporting a Fred Durst chin strap and stealing every scene he’s in (Derrek aspires to make Instagram fail videos).
Strippers have seen some shit — are essentially defined by their having seen some shit — so when Zola gets in over her head you know some truly grimy doings are afoot. Those doings involve a pimp whose Nigerian accent slips out whenever he’s angry (Colman Domingo) and some townies who Derrek gets too chummy with — played by the consistently excellent Jason Mitchell (Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton).
Accents slip, Derrek sulks, and Janicza Bravo’s fourth-wall-breaking tricks show up periodically. Zola is extra, stylistically, and is a little like Spring Breakers if played as a horror movie, with a soupçon of grad school (I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris could write academic essays on all their artistic choices). It’s goofy and flashy and silly, but also pretty damned terrifying when it wants to be. You don’t see many depictions of sex work this clear-eyed and honest without getting preachy or sensational. I question its lack of drug use, considering the original thread was practically vibrating with obvious cocaine influence, but maybe they had to sacrifice drug depictions to keep the “weird dick” montage (oh to have been a fly on the wall during that casting session) and still get an R rating.
At the very least, Zola is entertaining as hell and the cast is brilliant, but I never quite figured out the logic of its internet motif. Still, it’s hard not to admire it for the artistic risks it takes, and you don’t necessarily have to “get” a movie on first watch in order to enjoy it. It’s a rare pleasure to be treated as smarter than we actually are these days.