REVIEW: Zola [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 86 minutes
    Release Date: June 30th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: A24
    Director(s): Janicza Bravo
    Writer(s): Janicza Bravo & Jeremy O. Harris / A’Ziah King (Tweets) / David Kushner (Rolling Stones article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted”)

Clean your butt!

Twitter user A’Ziah King had the platform eating out of her palm for 148-tweets back in 2015. Everyone wanted to “hear a story about why [she] & this bitch here fell out” and waited patiently for each new mini chapter before the entire opus got screenshot, shared on every social media site, and inevitably crossed the radar of Rolling Stone‘s David Kushner to document what “really” happened for the magazine later that year. And since you can’t go viral to that extent without earning some attention from Hollywood, it only makes sense that the whole ordeal would wind up being immortalized on the big screen courtesy of director Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris. From thread to Oscars buzz in five years flat, Zola has arrived.

The question that must be asked, however, is whether it was narratively and creatively suited for this transformation. The way King tells it online is unparalleled. She knows exactly how to pique interest with numerous cliffhangers and hilarious embellishments so that the journey can be driven by an indefatigable energy without a single lull in sight. We are transported to Tampa to stare with shock as Stefani (a friend she just met that promised a weekend of dancing/stripping before getting Zola embroiled in a high stakes prostitution scheme with her pimp that ultimately proves too close sex trafficking horrors for comfort) drops bombshell revelation after bombshell revelation. It’s all so random and abrupt that we have no clue what to expect until another shoe drops and chaos reigns.

Guess what goes first when you decide to adapt a singular, off-the-cuff adventure like that into a cohesive, narrative screenplay? Spontaneity. I can’t speak for those who go into this film with zero awareness of what’s coming, but all that energy has been stripped away. The sound design (utilizing phone and social media noises to create tension and humor) tries to be the heartbeat we need to progress forward with uncertainty and anticipation, but it’s difficult to stay on edge when every crazy sequence devolves into a slow montage before making way for an even slower segue. Where King could excise the boring monotony of travel time and punctuate the salacious danger via succinct tweeting, Bravo and company have painted themselves into the corner of showing us everything.

It starts out okay. We meet Zola (Taylour Paige) at her waitressing job and Stefani (Riley Keough) at her table. They talk about “dancing” and find a kinship that has them swapping phone numbers to make this Tampa trip possible. Zola calms her boyfriend (Ari’el Stachel‘s Sean) down with sex to let her go. Stefani calms Zola down by explaining how her boyfriend (Nicholas Braun‘s Derrek) and roommate (Colman Domingo‘s X) will be escorting them to the clubs. The way Bravo transitions from the beginning of their car ride (the quartet fooling around and singing to the radio on-camera) to the end (Stefani obnoxiously telling a story that has Zola regretting picking up her phone) is brilliant. The moment they stop stripping, however, everything screeches to a halt.

The reason is simple: it takes less time to get hyped by reading the entire thread than it does to get to that point here. And there’s still an hour of film left. That means dragging on the fireworks that arrive with X shedding his “roommate” persona for hardcore Nigerian pimp (Domingo’s ability to switch accents on a dime to match the character’s violent rage is terrifyingly effective and a testament to his craft). It means putting us in Zola’s head while standing guard as Stefani sleeps with ten plus men in a hotel room—experiencing the disgusting drone of strangers orgasming with no possibility of escape. One line of context via Twitter becomes ten to fifteen minutes of on-screen action dragging excitement to a crawl.

There’s also the addition of Dion (a surprise appearance by Jason Mitchell considering the controversy swirling around his conduct on “The Chi” supposedly making him persona non grata). He’s an intriguing character on the surface who initially gives Derrek more to do than be nervous and suicidal in the background, but he’s also a physical presence utilized as foreshadowing for what should be the craziest bit of the whole weekend. So rather than shock us with a climax that comes out of nowhere (and yet makes perfect sense considering the world Zola has been coerced into inhabiting), Bravo and Harris prepare us for it. And rather than let it be dangerous and unpredictable, they render it amateurish and unplanned. It should play like a nightmare, not a gag.

To make it a gag means going wilder with everything else. It seems like everyone has been hailing Zola the film as this insane ride and yet reality proves it’s actually just a tame retelling. There’s one instance where Bravo has legitimate fun and it’s a brief interlude into Stefani’s perspective (the real-life woman has gone on-record to say Zola was the prostitute and not her). It shifts everything straight down to how the characters are presented and its comedy gold. And Bravo had the opportunity to run with that notion—that we’ll never know what really happened since everyone (including Derrek and the since arrested Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe) has their own version of the truth. This could have been a more outlandish Hustlers with interviews and hindsight.

Instead, it’s a grounded version of a Twitter thread that became famous precisely because it was anything but. I can’t really fault anyone either since it’s well-made, well-acted, and an enjoyable night at the movies. It’s not #TheStory, though. It’s neither wild nor unpredictable. And the culprit is an abstract desire to monetize something that proved insanely successful within its very specific medium by forcing it into another without fully grasping what made the first so good. The closest product I can think to use as a comparison point is Ron Howard‘s Robert Langdon series. They’re narratively faithful to Dan Brown’s books, but cinematically tame due to the lack of reworking their literary strengths into the visual realm. Zola puts King’s words on-screen, but none of their electricity.

[1] (L-R) Riley Keough, Taylour Paige Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24
[2] (L-R) Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24
[3] (L-R) Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.