Directed by Janicza Bravo; Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris
Stories used to live on through our oral tradition, where tales got embellished with every retelling and honed into something that could quiet a crowd. Now we have a tweeted tradition, where stories are plucked from the morass of social media should they go viral for long enough. Some stories, should they be of the time, as well as outrageous and scandalous enough, will transcend the clutter and claim their place in pop culture; where Hollywood money men would plunder the Best Seller lists for material, they, or their assistants, now scroll Twitter.
That’s how Zola, Janicza Bravo’s glitter-and-grime thrillride came to be, with its source material 148 tweets sent by A’Ziah King back in 2015. Bravo spends 90 minutes retelling it all, give or take some artistic indulgence, and with sordid energy, she lets viewers trail in Zola’s wake, a waitress and part-time dancer (played with both finesse and fierce attitude by Taylour Paige), who on a whim decides to join new bestie Stefani (Riley Keough), her “roommate”, and her boyfriend on a trip to Tampa, FL to make some money pole dancing.
Few people are what they seem, turns out, and so does the Floridian Eden take on a different vibe when its nocturnal animals slink out into the neon light. Its cast is a mix of characters both hilarious and terrifying, be it Stefani’s lovesick loser of a boyfriend, or the “roommate” who turns out to be (surprise) her pimp, brought to life with terrible power by Colman Domingo, whose broad smile quickly turns into a hissing slit the second Stefani’s take for the night feels light.
Domingo’s performance is the monster in Zola, a film Bravo establishes as a fairytale with a musical motif of a plucked harp that’s acts as a slippery slope into the twisted nightmare it becomes, as Mica Levi’s score of breathy flutes and coke-comedown synthesizers blur the line between the two. While Zola is every bit a bad bitch, self-possessed, and not afraid to stand up for herself, the evil Domingo represents puts all that to pasture, imposing his twisted order with such force and omnipotence that he transcends simple commentary about the lascivious, but shadow-clad part of our world that is sex work, to instead stand in for the unscrupulous patriarchal void that still dominates society.
Even with those brief forays into meaningfulness, Zola is like a pole dance: its aesthetic overture and seduction of the senses is the show, and anyone hoping the dancer will come off the pole to talk and reveal themselves to you as a person is a sucker. Bravo explores briefly some thematic elements of sex work and female empowerment, but it’s all a wash once things turn sour, as from then on it’s survival, partly hilarious, but always terrifying.
It trades in the same outsized energy and sexual effusiveness found in Spring Breakers and touches the fringe existences found in Sean Baker’s films, only without the humanity and insight. It’s fun, watching these people act crazy, with Zola’s voiceover commentary playacting at control as she tries to navigate threats implicit and explicit, but ultimately it doesn’t build to anything bigger.
Returning to Zola’s origin as a Tweet thread, it’s clear this is both a boon and a curse, as the air of authenticity does put some extra oomph in the crazed encounters, but as it barrels through to its conclusion Zola reminds us why “based on true events”-stories often need some artifice as well. The following is spoiler-ish, so you know, stop if that’s not your bag.
Movies end, and even those whose departures are ambiguous leave a farewell note to dwell on. Not so with Zola, a film that simply ends mid-madness, gathering its clothes off the floor, spinning on its heel and marching off stage, a feature-length music video with all that implies: sensation, intensity and similar (lack of) heft.