It may be too early to anoint director (and co-writer) Janicza Bravo as the next Quentin Tarantino, but most of that inventive director’s ingredients are here: a certain one-thing-after-another zaniness; a combination of intense “reality” and cartoonish, stylized fantasy; a bloody killing without emotional valence (that one doesn’t really care about); acts without consequences, including a “suicide” that isn’t. Palm trees.
Unlike Tarantino, who revels in playing with time and the (dis)ordering of events, Bravo’s story is rigorously chronological, like the social media on which it is based (A’Ziah King’s [here, Zola’s] October 2015 148-tweet viral Twitter thread) and which it uses to maximum effect. The premise is simple enough: Zola (Taylour Paige, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” ), a young, smart black woman seeking more from life than waitressing, agrees to travel south with recent acquaintance Stefani, a wacky, hyper, rail-thin young white woman, and Stefani’s manager Jonathan (experienced police procedural actor Nasir Rashim), an intimidating black man with green eyes. Sharing the back seat is the fourth person on this road trip, Derrek (Nicholas Braun—delightfully recognizable as the nephew of the older brother in TV’s “Succession”), who is geeky, naïve, and helplessly devoted to Stefani. They’re headed to Tampa, where Zola expects to have fun and make big bucks pole dancing in clubs alongside Stefani. Having survived the drive (“this is weird,” she tweets, and that understates the surreal quality of the journey), Zola discovers that she and Stefani are expected to earn their money having sex—and lots of it.
There will be lots of sex—and plenty of no-holds-barred male nudity—and you’ll be justified in wondering how Stefani survives the onslaught. But “Zola” remains a woman’s story—even, maybe, a feminist tale. The men are pimps, Johns, doofuses, or just bad guys. Our leading ladies are victims, yes, but they’re not “woe is me” victims; they have various forms of agency. Stefani (Riley Keough, Elvis’s granddaughter, best known for TV’s “The Girlfriend Experience”) is funny and resilient; Zola is contemplative, calculating and, as it turns out, entrepreneurial in an empowering way. Despite the pole dancing and all those bare (male) butts, the two women (and dumb Derrek, too) have moments of seriousness as they consider their options, even while being “licked” (don’t ask).
Although Jonathan is nasty and tyrannical, in other respects the film valorizes black culture over white. Stefani—who can talk white when she’s eager to tell her own (likely false) version of what happened on Reddit—enjoys being immersed in the black argot and a rap sensibility, one that renders the dialog in some early scenes virtually incomprehensible. A thoughtful Zola works to protect her friend while serving as our eyes and ears. The white people in the film, including Derrek and the single-minded, sex-seeking men, all seem on the stupid or obtuse side. For all his malevolence, Jonathan somehow saves the day—and does it joyfully.
Bravo, who has directed mostly shorts and TV episodes (including one “Mrs. America”), accomplishes what few have to date: she makes use of social media to keep the story current and lively; many of Zola’s original tweets appear onscreen. Even those who are not savvy users of Twitter or Reddit can appreciate the contemporary story-telling devices that allow insight into Zola’s emotions at every stage of the drama.
“Zola” is not for everyone. Some will be shocked. Some will find what happens to Stefani sad and even repulsive—the comic parade of white rear ends notwithstanding—and will long for a good dose of therapeutic intervention, whether for the body or the psyche. Others will experience Stefani less as a free spirit than as a pathetic, misguided soul. Still others may be offended by the film’s depiction of whites as barely conscious. Admirers of Tarantino will take all that with the irony with which it was intended, enjoy the tweets and posts, appreciate the performances of Keough and Paige, and welcome a talented director into the fold.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Janicza Bravo
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Nasir Rashim
Other Awards: One win (“Director to Watch” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival) and one other nomination (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival)
Runtime: 86 minutes
Availability: Only in theaters to date. For future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
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Lead image: Stefani (Riley Keough) doing her Miley Cyrus imitation, and a somewhat skeptical Zola (Taylour Paige)