This film was screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
“You wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
On paper (or on an iPhone screen), “Zola” sounds like one of the worst ever ideas for a feature-length film. Based on a real-life Twitter thread between a Hooters waitress and a stripper, this stranger than fiction story played out over social media in 2015 — and damn if it doesn’t make for a wildly original, outrageously entertaining movie.
Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) at a restaurant in Detroit, where the two begin chatting about their common interest: pole dancing. Soon after they meet, Stefani invites Zola on a cross-country road trip to Tampa, where they hope to make thousands of dollars dancing in the swanky Florida strip clubs. What starts out as a promising business venture turns into an absolutely crazy (and dangerous) outing with violent pimps, prostitution, attempted suicide, and murder. You have to see it to believe it. It’s crazy.
The story is (mostly) true, and writer – director Janicza Bravo focuses on Zola’s side of the story (although Stefani has a chance to present her version in one of the most hilarious bits in the film). You could say it’s all about individual perspective, but Zola is presented as the lone truth teller. Will we ever know the full truth? It’s unlikely.
The performances are as sensational as the story, with challenging and risky roles for all of the actors involved. Paige and Keough (in what was my favorite performance at Sundance this year) are particularly fearless as they go all-in on Zola and Stefani, Nicholas Braun is sympathetic as a kind, long-suffering boyfriend, and Colman Domingo is downright frightening as an intimidating, violent pimp. The cast takes the script and runs wild with it, and it works.
Bravo has achieved something incredible here, as she literally takes tweets and has crafted them into a saucy screenplay. The film has an appealing eccentricity to it, and it’s directed with a tongue-in-cheek style that fits the material like a glove. Her attention to detail is stellar, and the look of the film is perfectly matched to its source material.
“Zola” has a few missteps and feels overly long, but the confidence from Bravo and her cast makes the majority of its flaws disappear. It manages to stay funny, even when things get very, very dark. This is one of those wacky movies that is sure to be talked about, if only for the sheer insanity of the story.