If Larry Clark’s Bully (2001) and Todd Phillips’ Road Trip (2000) morphed together and had a gender swap, the result would probably be close to Janicza Bravo’s new film Zola. Originally based on an epic Twitter thread that blew up and went viral in 2015, Zola had all the potential to be a hot mess that’s terrible or a hot mess that’s at least entertaining. Fortunately for movie fans, the final cut is much closer to the latter.
While the original thread was an eye-catching page-scroller, it wasn’t a surprise when it was later reported that the real Aziah King (AKA, Zola) embellished some details for the sake of memorable storytelling. Embellishments can work against you in real life, yet can be perfect for quality fiction.
On screen, we see Zola (Taylour Paige) working a night shift at her waitressing job when she meets customer Stefani (Riley Keough), and it’s friends at first sight. Right away, they not only exchange contact info, but Stefani convinces Zola to work a couple of pole dancing jobs with her over the weekend in Miami. For the next 72 hours, Zola goes from guest to hostage as she’s stuck with Stefani, her dweeby boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and her sketchy and dangerous “boss” X (Colman Domingo) in a series of outrageous events.
As one of the first ever movies to be directly based on a series of social media posts, it’s interesting to see what works well story-wise on film and what doesn’t. Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris manage to craft a conventional script for this wild and crazy tale that’s allegedly true. But with a few scenes, it’s obvious there might have been a struggle to come up with some resolutions, as a 140-word tweet doesn’t exactly translate perfectly for a 5-10 minute movie scene. Bravo already has an eclectic reputation with the quirky comedy Lemon (2017) and episodes of popular TV shows like “Atlanta” (2016-). So her direction is perfect for Zola’s adventure with many colorful effects and stylistic narrative choices.
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“…90 minutes of brilliance.” — The Wrap
ZOLA now playing. pic.twitter.com/2EeGhixjpZ
— Alamo Drafthouse (@alamodrafthouse) June 30, 2021
One thing that made me a little uncomfortable when the original tweets went online was so many people making memes and laughing at how over the top Zola’s descriptions were, despite there being coercion into prostitution and assault throughout. Fortunately, Bravo treats the characters seriously most of the time and doesn’t mock the seriousness of the context in the recounted incidents.
Besides the comedic aspects not fully landing for me and an obnoxious chirping sound effect appearing whenever something noteworthy happens, I thought Zola was just fine. Paige carries the film well as the title character, and Keough can now join Taryn Manning and Bijou Phillips as one of those indie actresses who is just a little too good at playing “white trash.” Most appreciated in a day and age of epic blockbusters and binge-worthy series is that the runtime is only 87 minutes, and the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome.
If low-brow, kind of artsy indie dramas with tacky characters are your type of thing, Zola might be the flick for you on a Friday night.
Zola could write Shakespeare but Shakespeare couldn’t never write Zola.
— Donnie George (@donnie_george_) July 3, 2021
Have you seen Zola? Did you think the story worked on film as well as it did on social media? Let us know in the comments!
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