In 2015, a waitress and stripper from Detroit posted 148 tweets that went viral. The tweets told the story of a trip to Florida meant to score big dollars—but it wound up becoming a comic nightmare of pimps, dirty old men and gunshots.
Zola, co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo, is a taut yet bonkers account of those tweets—tweets that, in fact, dramatically embellished what actually happened. Still, much of what happens in the movie actually did occur in real life, and Zola acts as a precautionary tale: If somebody you just met during a waitressing shift suggests you tag along on a journey to make a lot of money stripping, your best option is to politely say no, and head on home.
Taylour Paige, in a breakout performance, plays Zola, a waitress who occasionally strips for extra money. She meets Stefani (Riley Keough, who burns up the screen as usual)—and a quick flirtation commences. Before she knows it, Zola is on her way to Tampa with Stefani; her boyfriend, Derrek (a raw and ridiculous Nicholas Braun); and a mysterious man called X (a sinister Colman Domingo).
Things go from bad (a cheap motel; a sleazy strip joint) to worse (a much better motel, but lots of gross men paying for and demanding sex) in the course of the first day. Turns out Stefani is a part-time prostitute; X is her pimp; and Zola has been hijacked into a progressively sketchy situation.
Paige and Keough make the rather nasty story completely watchable. Keough makes her character straight-up annoying—and succeeds, giving us a frighteningly conniving yet clueless Stefani, complete with a culturally appropriated “blaccent.” Keough is so damned good at what she does that she somehow keeps the dangerous Stefani likable, even as the world spirals out of control due to her lies and actions.
As Zola, Paige gives the movie a calm center. She’s not smart enough to avoid such a situation, yet she’s resourceful enough to navigate it, as if she’s been through some major shit before.
In what stands as one of the year’s best performances so far, Domingo gets the role of his lifetime as X, an at-first smiley host who becomes a nasty, bad-ass pimp when Zola threatens to end their trip early.
Bravo’s approach makes the film feel like a Twitter feed (complete with that whistle notification alert). Zola befriends the sketchy Stefani quickly, much like accepting a new “friend” into a social-media feed. However, that acceptance brings true horror rather than a glimpse into what Stefani had to eat that day or pictures of her cat.
The movie is funny in an uncomfortable way that befits the subject matter. If you’ve seen Bravo’s Lemon, you know she is at home with uncomfortable humor. Many of the laughs come from the clueless ramblings of Braun, as the boyfriend who has absolutely no control over the direction of his and his girlfriend’s lives. Bravo’s film goes to some very dark places: A sex montage involving some shady men is not for the squeamish, and a hotel scene toward the film’s end goes to creepy extremes. In short, don’t take the kids to this one.
James Franco was originally set to direct and star, but he left the project after sexual-misconduct allegations came to light. For multiple reasons, this is probably a good thing. While Franco managed to make a good movie with The Disaster Artist, his vision would not have been the right one for this subject matter. Bravo approaches the material in a very matter-of-fact way that provides kinetic energy throughout the film’s 86-minute run time; there’s nothing self-indulgent about the movie.
Bravo packs a lot into those 86 minutes, and when Zola calls it a day, we’re ready to call it a day with her: The film lets off the gas at just the right point. The movie marks major progressions in the careers of Keough, Paige, Braun and Domingo—and it offers further proof that Bravo is a director on the rise.
Zola is now playing at various theaters across the valley.