“Zola” is a darkly amusing cautionary tale of sexual exploitation which will definitely make you wince more than once. Cheerfully bouncing from one absurd moment to another, the movie never overlooks the seedy and exploitative aspects of what its heroine lets herself tumble into, and we come to observe its story and characters with morbid amusement and fascination even while feeling more and more uncomfortable along the story.
As some of you know, the movie is based on David Kushner’s Rolling Stones article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” and a Twitter thread from 2015 by an African American woman named Aziah “Zole” King. Although the story told via those Tweets of hers turned out to have many embellished aspects as she admitted later in Kushner’s article, it went quite viral at that time, and that was how it came to draw the attention of director/co-writer Janicza Bravo, who subsequently wrote the screenplay along with her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris.
The story of the movie is mainly unfolded via the viewpoint of Zola, who is played by Taylour Paige. When she is working at a local restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, Zola happens to come across a young Caucasian woman named Stefani (Riley Keough), and they come to befriend each other quickly as spending some time together later. Because Zola is a part-time stripper just like her, Stefani suggests that they should go to a local strip club together, and their friendship seems to be solidified more as they respectively work and then earn some money at that place.
And then Stefani makes an interesting proposition to Zola. She will soon go to Florida along with her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and a certain friend of hers for earning more money there, and she suggests that Zola also should go there along with them. While she is reluctant at first, Zola eventually decides to accept Stefani’s suggestion, and Zola’s boyfriend does not mind this at all because, well, he has accepted how she works to earn their living everyday.
When Zola meets Stefani and two other figures on the next day, we instantly see bad signs. While Stefani shows more of her uncomfortable sides as casually using the vernaculars of African American women right in front of Zola, it is quite apparent to us that Derrek is your average hapless boyfriend who seems to have no idea on whatever Stefani is going to do in Florida. In case of the third figure, who is simply referred to as “X” (Colman Domingo) in the beginning, this African American dude looks rather fishy despite his ebullient attitude, and we come to sense that something is going on between him and Stefani.
Anyway, their drive to Florida is fairly eventful to say the least. As X is driving his car, Stefani and Derreck often attempt to brighten up the mood, and we accordingly get a dizzy sequence where they do lots of silly things in front of their smartphones. As watching all these silliness, we cannot help but notice the superficial aspects of their following online activities, which are further accentuated by that frequent notification sounds from smartphones on the soundtrack.
Once Zola and her new friends arrive in Tampa, Florida, she and Stefani promptly go to a local strip club and then do their job as planned, but, as she warned to us in advance, the situation later becomes quite problematic for Zola. She belatedly comes to learn that Stefani has been doing some other thing for getting extra cash, and, not so surprisingly, X is the one pulling the strings behind Stefani’s back.
Zola naturally tries to walk away from Stefani and others, but she only finds herself getting more involved with these increasingly untrustworthy figures. When she sees how pathetic Stefani looks, she cannot help but feel sorry for Stefani, so she decides to give Stefani some extra help, but that makes her get more involved with not only Stefani but also X. After reminded again of how dishonest both of them have been to her from the beginning, Zola feels more urge to leave right now, but X will certainly not give up any good opportunity to get more money for him, and there is a brief but chilling moment where he switches back and forth between two very different modes.
While its heroine gets mired in more seediness and exploitation, the movie hurls a number of deliberately uncomfortable moments including the one showing lots of male body parts, but it steadily maintains its gradually distant attitude in the disturbingly lightweight atmosphere, which is often emphasized by Mica Levi’s unconventional score throughout the film. In case of the main performers in the film, Paige and her fellow cast members are believable in their respective parts, and Riley Keough and Colman Domingo have some juicy fun with their broad but colorful supporting characters while Nicholas Braun manages to earn a bit of our sympathy despite constantly looking dopey and confused.
On the whole, “Zola”, which is Bravo’s second feature film after “Lemon” (2017), is as uncomfortable to watch as other similar films such as Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2012), but it is one of the better works from its genre field thanks to its good performances and effective storytelling. It is seedy and disturbing indeed, but it is presented without enough style and mood, and that is enough for me for now.