Written and directed by Janicza Bravo, co-written by Jeremy O. Harris and based on a Twitter thread by A’Ziah King. Zola, a Detroit waitress and stripper, is seduced into a weekend of dancing in Florida for some quick cash but the trip quickly becomes a sleepless 48-hour odyssey involving a nefarious friend, her pimp and her idiot boyfriend. Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun and Jason Mitchell.
The general concept of a film based on a series of tweets following the antics of two young, social media obsessed strippers, firstly sounds ridiculous and secondly sounds as if it would be pretty irritating and yet it’s perfectly bizarre. It’s a similar case with the personality of Stefani (Riley Keough), her whole persona is completely exaggerated and yet she’s fascinating. This story which you would imagine as entirely vapid and self-obsessed to the point of oblivion, never gets there because it’s actually clever and highly entertaining. Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris capture flawlessly the atmosphere of this social inspired story, bringing through a post type accentuation to the story, narrated over the top is excellent. A’Ziah King knew she had a story that was just unbelievable enough to still be (mostly) true and these two writers made it into something enthralling. It has an unexpected amount of wit to it, and uses that dual perspective of two sides to every story very well.
That’s in huge part due to the phenomenal performances by Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. Paige brings a sincere intelligence, resilience and resourcefulness to Zola, she’s simply a fantastic character. She’s relatable and sympathetic but she’s also unique, you can’t take your eyes off of her, she’s an absolute pleasure to watch at work. Then there’s the exceptional commitment that Keough brings to Stefani, it’s a level that’s beyond your best expectations. Again, it’s one you’d envisage as insipid and ridiculous but it’s incredible, she’s slick, deceptive and relentless. Put the two of them together and it’s classic movie magic, you’d never get tired of them. Topped with the chaotic energy of both Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun, two extremely different characters but both ready to explode at any time and it’s off the rails in the best way.
Bravo’s directorial style contains all the colour and glamour that you’d expect. It uses sex to its advantage, bringing sleaze and male gaze but framed in a way that reflects the stripper, sex worker themes. It keeps the power on the side of the women, they may fall prey to violence but the stripping and sex work is their domain. It has an undeniably modern style, nothing less would do justice to its story, it’s fast paced and packed with energy. The atmosphere is sleek, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek with the fact that it’s genuinely self-aware of its vain, highly stylised nature and uses that to its benefit.
Zola is a wild ride, Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are sensational, bringing to life these extraordinary characters who completely defy your initial perceptions and portray strong, smart women. It’s just crazy enough to still be believable, its energy is consistently high throughout, it never lets up. Janicza Bravo manages to do the unexpected and bring to life a crazy, gossiping Twitter chain in a way that’s hugely entertaining, high quality and endlessly absorbing.