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REVIEW – “Zola”: A Social Media Barnburner Hustles its Way to the Big Screen

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this ***** here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

Twitter can often be inviting, enriching, scary. A haven for quick thoughts, and an oasis for multi-layered stories wrapped in an overlong thread (148 posts in all). Once in a blue moon, such a thread incites enough viral hype to hit the magazine circuit, then the big screen. Janiscza Bravo’s (Lemon) evocative and darkly comic sophomore feature Zola wears those badges with a succinct pride of both its origin, and its circumstance. The latter is highly atypical, a bit rude, and rather lewd; so best to proceed carefully.

We’re reminded immediately how volatile this story is by being inspired by mostly true events. Drawn from the accounts of one A’ziah “Zola” King of one wild weekend in 2015 where her life had been flipped upside down (later spun into an expansive Rolling Stone article by David Kushner). It begins innocently enough, with our title character (Taylour Paige) working at a sports bar in Detroit (the original tweets signal it was a Hooters) when she meets the trendy Stefani (Riley Keough) in a random chance encounter. They bond over a common entity, in her heightened “millennial speak” accent. “Your brain is broke”, she utters, aware money is an issue between them both. Stefani gives Zola an open invitation to travel on the road to Florida for a weekend, and for some quick money playing the stripper game, clearly a different set of rules compared to home.

Having only known this mysterious woman a brief time, Zola’s reluctant to agree to the getaway. Slowly warming up to the concept, her optimism hits a wild pause being pulled into a car alongside Stefani’s flighty boyfriend Derrick (Nicholas Braun), and their intimidating, muscle-bound coordinator known as X (Colman Domingo). Some signs are clearer than others X takes his job title seriously as a hustler of most trades, insistent on putting the duo to work, both on stage, and in their hotel room as high-priced call girls. Without the right will or skill, it’s tough to overcome. Zola knows this, and yet her sarcastic, often clever perception of the matter at hand just a trifle easier to swallow. And all at a pace sprightlier than if this story were more a deeper-thinking drama.

Bravo, whose work in short-form and television direction has bolstered her desire to pull every stop against a zippy pace, puts that same skeletal structure from 0 to 60 for Zola. Working from a script she co-wrote with Jeremy O. Harris, the intensely absurdist, if not also rather graphic (plenty of full-frontal shots) tale is suddenly granted equal amounts of oxygen and adrenaline. Even then, for the consequences our protagonists wind up in, there may not be enough of the latter. Just when she looks to bail, the ramifications raise a warning bell as X flexes his control as a self-labeled pimp. Domingo’s screen magnetism alone is a manifestation of such a writhe ethical quandary, holding his associates captive with a gun and an intimidating African accent that comes and goes, to a comical point.

That cat and mouse game reminded me most fervently of any infamous 70s exploitation film, the motif of which being given a modern makeover to reflect the darker side of our culture, the business of being sexy, and how social media inadvertently has played an increasing role. How we’re connected to our apps, for one, moves the plot forward unlike anything else. Bravo even goes as far as to inundate mere push notifications into the sound design. A simple thing played like an expert driver at the wheel, not unlike the film’s overall ambiance. Mostly expressed in night scenes outside along quiet city streets, or in interiors with endless mirrors, and dingy, theatrical lighting intercut with flickers to mimic the sensation of a singular photo added to the thread. Small touches to balance the not-so-glamorous performance side, with the drab, mundane business end.

Even conversations in daylight, or in more controlled environments like a liquor store between the chipper Braun and a random onlooker are suddenly thrust into the spotlight just briefly enough to shake the rhythm. Not as loudly as X would be when he’s most furious. Or as submissively as Stefani while on a job, with Keough gritting her teeth, flashing her goods, snarling her deceptions toward the captive clients she’s luring in. Nowhere near a homecoming queen, neither completely trailer trash, but a happy medium whose conviction masks the viciousness behind her work. But of course, Miss Paige, who caught my attention earlier this year as the love interest in Eddie Huang’s Boogie is still in the lead. It’s her show, she’s the headliner, the glue holding her group of misfits together before they drive each other crazy. Her graceful demeanor, her trenchancy toward a shattered fourth wall, and diluted fashion sense will captivate, while her character’s misguided soul pierces our own in those most private, upfront moments. Some subtlety remains in use, but only until the third act shifts the wheel to Stefani’s darker accounts of that weekend. Complete with a shift in both tone and color palette.

I couldn’t shake the sensation of having just viewed a modern-day Dolemite, done with a twist of Magic Mike sans the Soderbergh, as well as Tangerine albeit with added camera flexibility. There’s an element of crime, of frivolity. Of rapture and innocence, of bright lights, and small camera film grain. And that may just be in the first twenty minutes, part of the drive captured on a GoPro while Migos blasts in the background. Bold choices for a director continuing to pave her trail, but who has already nailed down her scope and timekeeping, never wasting a moment, but giving each beat enough time to stomp. I had not seen Lemon, nor have I been aware of Janiscza Bravo’s presence in the filmmaking scene. What she accomplishes here was enough to keep her work on my radar.

Aside from an ending that literally falls off a proverbial cliff, Zola does stick a hard landing after a brief triad of optimistic longing and mild overreaching. Encapsulating so many feelings proven to accompany pure adulting, and the lengths some would go to achieve personal independence, it is the slick, jaunty, brash road trip the tweets could only explain descriptively. Like the platform this story and this intonation were originated out of, Zola‘s perhaps a bit too quick, and a bit too sudden to elevate itself higher (it was certainly deserving of that), but the speed it runs at is already just right, fast enough to maybe require handrails. And gloves. A lot of gloves. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Zola is currently playing in a few theaters; rated R for language, violence, nudity, and bedroom acrobatics; 86 minutes.