Part absurdist adventure and part thrilling crime story, Janizca Bravo’s Zola shows the lurid aspects of life on the fringes while providing a wildly entertaining narrative supported by dynamite performances.
Taylour Paige stars as the titular Zola, a waitress who moonlights as a pole dancer. During one of her shifts, Zola meets Stefani (Riley Keough), who invites her to dance at her club that night. The two form a fast friendship and the next morning Stefani invites Zola on a trip to Tampa, Florida to dance at a club for the weekend to make some money.
They are joined by Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and the mysterious X (Colman Domingo). As the days and nights progress, Zola realizes Stefani and X have their own plans while she is made an unwilling participant in their increasingly dangerous schemes.
At a mere 90 minutes, the film is patiently reveals each little piece of information just as Zola finds it out. Based off a viral Twitter thread, Zola will occasionally intersect small bits of voiceover to lend some narrative puzzle piece or a bit of quick comedy. Sometimes, instead of a sex scene, Zola will recount the scene and state, “It was nasty.” The film maintains a lighter tone despite some fairly dark and serious things happening on screen.
Keough commands the audience attention with her deliberate voice appropriation and can-and-will-do attitude. Every wild thing that happens to Stefani and because of Stefani seems par for the course for her and she never questions her circumstances or shows any personal agency. Keough crafts such an indelibly revolting but ultimately likeable character that it makes it difficult to look away.
Domingo takes some wild swings as X, with a voice that switches from calm and gravely to fast-paced and Caribbean if his temper changes. The actor conveys charming menace and unpredictability with every scene. In lesser hands, the role of X would have been a disaster, but every insane choice feels right for the film.
Paige is in nearly every scene of the film and anchors it in believability. Each time something crazy happens or something can devolve into a dangerous situation, Paige is there with her expressive eyes and incredulous looks. She embodies Zola with the knowledge that she isn’t judging your decisions, but don’t attempt to bring her into them. She is not afraid of what she needs to do, but she does not come by every decision lightly. The film also styles her smartly, with the elegance that the rest of surroundings do not match. Without her performance, the film doesn’t work.
Some of the circumstances fall into almost a surreal realm. When escaping a hotel, a dwarf unexplainedly bids them farewell by the pool. Odd characters pop in and out of the narrative to lend it some more insanity, only to disappear suddenly. Every choice feels intentional as Bravo keeps the audience disoriented and unprepared for the next crazy thing to happen. The script by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris weaves in fun elements, like direct address or inserting social media; calling back to its source material but also commenting on how much of a role it plays in the story.
Though highly stylized and not for everyone, Zola proves Bravo to be a new original voice in filmmaking while showcasing the immense talents of its three main players. If only all films based on Twitter posts could end up this entertaining…