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There is very little about Janicza Bravo’s Zola that isn’t interesting. Its twisty, shocking, (mostly) true story is adapted from a viral thread of 148 tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King from October 2015, as well as the Rolling Stone profile that followed a month later. Its aesthetic, soundscape, and score (by Mica Levi of Under the Skin fame) are designed to embrace the source material’s digital roots, incorporating Twitter’s notification-ping and the clock display from an iPhone’s lockscreen. Rooted in the voice that made King’s tweets so compelling to begin with, its tone covers the entire spectrum between hilarious and discomforting, with imagery at once artfully sexual and playfully crass. And the cast, filled from top-to-bottom with talent, are consistently excellent. With all that packaged in a crisp 90 minutes, I can only recommend letting it take you on its wild and strange journey – even if it won’t exactly be everyone’s cup of tea.
The film begins when Detroit waitress and part-time stripper Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough), a fellow stripper, while serving her table. The two quickly hit it off, and Stefani invites Zola on a trip to Tampa, Florida the very next day, offering her the chance to perform at a high-rolling club there. They go along with Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her roommate, referred to as X (Colman Domingo), but from the moment they drop Derrek off in a dingy motel, Zola feels that something is off. It soon becomes clear that X is a lot more than Stefani’s roommate and that he brought them with the intention of doing a lot more than dance, and Zola finds herself tangled up in a very messy situation that is, in the words of her real-life counterpart, “full of suspense.”
To watch Zola is to experience carefully calculated whiplash, and not only because the film is plotted in a way that plays with expectations. Dark comedies always pull our emotions in conflicting directions, but where most try to walk that delicate line between the humorous and the serious, Bravo uses it to play a game of hopscotch. Zola canleap from a crying, fearful Stefani begging Zola not to leave her alone, played straight and with the implication of genuine danger, to an abandoned Derrick leaving a voicemail that is as pitiful as it is guiltlessly funny, and this tonal fluidity ultimately makes the viewing experience more exciting. We’re constantly being asked to keep up with not only what is happening, but also how we’re supposed to feel about it – which is sometimes a bit challenging to decipher.
Even if it doesn’t give us easy answers, that line of questioning is well-suited to a film that is so much about storytelling. Zola is clearly the narrator of this story, but while Bravo occasionally uses voiceover to mimic how the original tweets were entirely in her voice, the protagonist is more often than not depicted as silent, taking in everything with a look of nonjudgmental displeasure. Instead, we see her perspective in the film’s aesthetics – in the way her pole dancing is filmed to look like performance art, or in the random interjection of Twitter sound effects, as if she is already visualizing how to tell this story in 140-character bites. We especially see her perspective when we are momentarily ripped away from it, into one that proves far less compelling – perhaps Bravo’s greatest tribute to her source material. We’re always aware of how different Zola would look if told by another narrator, and always grateful that she is there to do the telling.