Zola (2020)

Given that so much of the news and content we inhale is largely derived from our phones, it’s not entirely out of the realms of possibilities that a film would base itself off a Twitter thread. And that’s precisely what Janicza Bravo has done with Zola, a kinetic, unpredictable, road-trip movie centring around a duo of strippers that volleys somewhere between comedically brilliant and outrageously horrific.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” was the meme-worthy tweet that started the viral thread Bravo has lifted for her feature, one based off A’Ziah “Zola” King’s very real 2015 feed that ultimately earned the recognition of such artists as Missy Elliott, Solange Knowles, and Ava DuVernay.

King’s 148 tweets have been condensed to a taut 90 minute feature, focusing on herself (here played with a ferocious indifference by Taylour Paige) and Stefani (a trashy Riley Keough, injecting her performance with enough tenacity to earn her rightful award chatter), said “bitch” whose unpredictable nature leads to the breakdown of their temporary friendship. The two hit it off all well and good though – the part-time strippers finding a common ground in their desire to make more coin – and Stefani, whose vocal patterns suggest she’s very much adopted black culture as her own, despite, you know, being white, invites the eager Zola on a Florida road trip; Stef’s imprudent beau, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her “roommate”, X (Colman Domingo, utterly intoxicating in his ability to shift between civil and sinister), also along for the ride.

It doesn’t take much for Zola to soon discover that there’s something far more nefarious at play, with her situation gradually shifting from bizarre to brutal, but, despite her strong-willed temperament, the hold X seemingly has over Stef is enough to keep Zola tethered to them, as much as she desires to leave. Though Bravo’s script – written in collaboration with playwright Jeremy O. Harris – continually threatens to go off the rails, her neon-tinged travels into the depths of sex work consistently maintain their footing, with the filmmaker having the witty sense to disrupt the audio sporadically with the “whoosh” sound of a posted tweet, continually reminding us that this is indeed a factual story more bizarre than fiction; though Paige predominantly narrates the film as King, a wild flip to see the film from Stef’s perspective offers a brief reprieve, setting Keough up as a temporary narrator to showcase that the real “Stef” didn’t appreciate how she was portrayed.

On the surface Zola has that air of Spring Breakers filth about it, and it’s easy for many to dismiss the film as little more than exploitive, but Bravo is realising so much more throughout. A tale of innocence, experience, and casual racism, Zola – aided by deceptively nuanced turns from Paige and Keough – may have all the shiny, shallow sheen of a sexed-up road movie, but underneath the gloss is a beating heart and a bold critique on womanhood and their autonomy.

Zola is screening in select Australian cinemas now

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