'Zola' review: Pulp, peril, past and present meet in darkest corners of the Sunshine State
We'll begin with a question about “Doctor Who.”
(I'm really sorry.)
Do you remember in “Doctor Who” — the new ones, not the ones with the guy in the scarf — how there are fixed points in time? Immutable moments in history (or future history) that have to happen, which is rare in a show about time travelers mucking around with robots and Vincent van Gogh.
A'Ziah-Monae "Zola" King’s viral 2015 Twitter thread about the wildest trip to Florida ever is a fixed point in time.
And in 2021, “Zola,” a highly anticipated movie based on her tale-in-tweets and distributed by the tastemakers at A24, might be a fixed point, too. Directed by Janicza Bravo, who also wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, you realize after watching that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. This film could exist only right now: a movie about bad decisions, the worse outcomes they have for people with the least power, and the eternal evils that adapt to a thoroughly digital existence.
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No plot summary could do King’s serialized masterpiece justice, but here’s the short version of the very long series of events, as seen in Bravo’s adaptation. Zola (played by instant star Taylour Paige) is a waitress who dances on the side. One day, she befriends a batty sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough, once again making us wonder if her grandfather, who is literally Elvis Presley, could have ever seen this coming). Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida to make a little extra money pole dancing. As happens in Florida, things almost immediately spiral into the sensational. Zola finds herself on a criminal train wreck, starting with prostitution and ending in blood, that’s surreal, horrific and comically absurd.
Bravo’s translation of a story born on a modern medium (the bird app) to one that’s a century old (the silver screen) speaks two native tongues fluently. Digital chimes subtly punctuate key plot beats, like a notification might herald a new tweet. Timestamps look like iPhone clocks. The film’s core characters recklessly pass around a phone, filming selfie footage to Migos’ “Hannah Montana” as a luxury SUV hurtles down a nameless highway.
That scene is one of many that sample the spirit of cinema classics before it; in that case, Harmony Korine’s millennial mayhem shocker, “Spring Breakers.” Elsewhere, Bravo and cinematographer Ari Wegner splinter Zola’s image into a bad-dream kaleidoscope of color and mirror that echoes “The Red Shoes”; a later filthtastic bathroom scene is pure John Waters. (The strip club scenes also give off “Hustlers” vibes, though production-wise, that’s gonna be a coincidence of the zeitgeist.)
Don’t let anyone dare you to find a moment in "Zola” that seems accidental, or hastily orchestrated. Bravo’s hands are deft and creative. See a conspicuous hole in the sock of Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, aka Cousin Greg of “Succession,” playing to type), which says pathetic volumes about an overgrown puppy hiding in a dirtbag’s chinstrap beard. There’s the timelessness of the film’s graphic, exploitation flick-style title screen and grainy, grindhouse textures. Glass bricks, potted palms, liquor store security cam footage swapped in to move the action along — this is Wes Anderson if he exorcised whatever 1960s antique store ghost that’s been haunting him forever.
The stakes in which Zola finds herself never feel less than life-threatening, so the tightrope act of making the movie funny is even more awesome. Much of it comes down to the editing; freezing a character’s face in a doofy blur upon introduction, or employing subtitles with maximum irony.
And just as King’s literary voice animates every minute of this story, Paige’s turn as her onscreen avatar is titanic. Most of the film’s ensemble — Keough, Braun and Colman Domingo as a menacing mystery pimp — play it big, Florida big. Paige is watchful, not verbal; her eyes deliver entire monologues in a second. She has to pay attention. No one is this world is looking out for Zola and women like her.
The “Zola” viewing experience is chaotic, too, so it especially rewards the watchful. The bombastic internet personality Ts Madison leads a backstage prayer at a strip club that builds to a fervor no less religious than any of your Sunday prayers, I’m sure. All sex scenes — there is a lot of sex here —are filmed with a dignity about them, whether it’s Zola and her partner or a john who shows up to a hotel room.
The camera lingers on a Confederate flag on a highway drive. The only time we see the police in a movie entirely about the mortal peril of a Black woman: as they ominously descend on a faceless roadside figure screaming for help. One scene, where a white character offers a weaponized alternative history of the film’s events via social media to discredit Zola, is hilarious precisely long enough to realize it’s too real to truly be farcical.
An old evil. Just has a URL now.
And man, this still is a difficult one to reckon with. “Zola” straps Stefani to an oscillating fan of sympathy: sometimes she’s laughable, then she’s despicable, then she’s sympathetic. Keough draws a portrayal of a poor white woman who affects a parody of Black culture, but at the same time, the film’s caricatures dip into squirmy, classist mockery. A scene of sexual assault late in the film repulsively makes its point about the enduring abuse of women. Does showing it really repudiate it?
King’s cheeky, gripping Twitter thread was always harrowing, but just six years ago, it used to seem funnier, too. Brought to life by Bravo’s stylish and unsparing vision, “Zola” peels back the pulp to get to the peril that's been there all along. It had to happen.
The past and the present, all converging in Florida.
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Director: Janicza Bravo
Rated: R for strong sexual content, a sexual assault, language throughout, graphic nudity and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Watch: In theaters June 30