Scott's novel hums with a quiet power and unembellished poignancy.
Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Janicza Bravo
Review by Amanda Vilanova
In 2015, nineteen-year-old, A’Ziah ‘Zola’ Wells King began a Twitter thread with the following words: ‘Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.’ The 148-post thread detailed the author’s trip to Florida with a recent acquaintance, her boyfriend, and a man whom she then discovers is this girl’s pimp. It subsequently went viral, garnering the attention of celebrities and producers alike. Six years later, a film version of the story, directed by Janicza Bravo, has been released.
Zola isn’t exactly your run of the mill boy meets girl story. It’s a bit more like: girl meets girl, both girls are strippers, girl promises girl a high earning dancing weekend in Tampa and stuff gets crazy. Though Wells King has confessed that some of the original story is partly fictional, the film is based closely on this story.
When Zola (Taylor Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) meet at a restaurant they connect with one another instantly. Barely hesitating, Zola accepts an invitation to a weekend getaway, to pole dance for big bucks. When she’s picked up by Stefani’s dim-witted boyfriend and a mysterious ‘housemate’, the interactions begin to shift; this may not be what Zola signed up for.
The performances are solid, particularly from Paige who embodies a woman trying to keep herself and her new (sort of) friend safe on this dangerous joyride. She carries most of the movie’s comedy, nailing the deadpan delivery necessary to maintain the lightness that makes this film unique. Keough’s Stefani, with her affected accent, long nails and put on sweetness, almost becomes a caricature, but the actors build a believable relationship on screen. Nicholas Braun’s performance as Derek, Stefani’s less-than-bright boyfriend, tugs at your heartstrings, and Colman Domingo shines as a personable yet scary pimp who switches between silky and sharp at the drop of a hat.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography balances the glitz and seediness of these women’s profession and their inner world. The film moves between grey strip clubs and kitschy hotel rooms with men of all sorts. Particularly striking are the scenes of Zola and Stefani in a fantasy space, with full-length mirrors, where they dress, put on lipstick, and share thoughts with the audience. The film’s second half, however, lags a bit, losing some of its punchiness as it changes the formula and struggles to keep its momentum.
Zola nods to its social media roots with pings, texting and posts, often spoken out loud. The score by the composer Mica Levi underpins the story beautifully with sounds reminiscent of dreamy music boxes in the first half, becoming more synth-like, urban tunes later in the film.
Zola’s comedy is what really stuck with me. A weekend story of two girls and a pimp could have been told with a focus on victimhood, but Zola is not that film. It’s fun, funny, and worth a watch.