Sinisterly (almost sneakily) hilarious and meaningfully stylish, Zola is the single best piece of evidence to suggest that the creation of Twitter wasn’t a profound mistake. It is Spring Breakers without the baggage of Harmony Korine. It is satirically Scorsese-ish, were he to ever cast Black actors. Above all else, it is writer/director Janicza Bravo writing her name on the “must-watch filmmakers” list in fluorescent permanent ink.
Adapted from the legendary social media confession by A’Ziah King, Zola follows the titular character (played by Taylour Paige) as she learns that spontaneous activities are the realest evil on earth. After briefly meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), whose entire personality is “White woman who communicates solely via GIFs of Black women,” Zola agrees to go on a trip with her to Florida. Agreeing to plans of any kind is like inviting a vampire in; consenting to knowingly go to Florida is like giving Dracula a key.
The dancing duo are joined by X (Colman Domingo), who it turns out is Stefani’s pimp, and Derrek (Nicholaus Braun), who is Stefani’s sad sack, clueless boyfriend. Not long after arriving in the penile peninsula, things go from “uh oh” to “oh dear God” faster than a Tweet notification. Zola soon finds herself trying to negotiate the menacing threat of X, the manipulations of Stefani, and the projectile vomit of Derrek.
Watching Zola is a barrage of brain-breaking, split-second decisions about whether a moment is funny enough to laugh or upsetting enough to cringe. Both. The answer is almost always both. It reaches an equilibrium of tension-to-hilarity rarely (if ever) seen. It also sports a near-perfect style-to-substance ratio. Every needle drop and neon hue, every still frame and jump cut is purposeful in a way that advances both character and plot. There’s a hazy 30-second scene on a balcony that establishes the maniacal danger of X, exposes the resilience and fortitude of Zola, and exponentially raises the stakes without a single word spoken.
Keough’s hyperbolic blaxploitation is awards-worthy, to be sure. But the quietly demanding work turned in by Paige is simply next-level. If Zola has a weakness, it’s damn sure not Zola. The character isn’t given exposition or even the space to even imply a robust backstory. Paige does it all with expressions and eyerolls, through things like the speed with which she flips from authoritatively angry to endlessly amused. The men do fine work too. Domingo refuses to devolve into scene-chewing stereotypes, while Braun trades in on his gangly, awkward body and being for genuine belly laughs.
To be very clear, Zola had no business being this good. From the deft, nonjudgmental way it approaches sex work to the way it never minimizes the grotesque danger of sex trafficking, Bravo’s film may not have some easily definable take-home message, but that doesn’t make it insignificant or ephemeral. It’s the kind of movie those inclined to see in the first place would watch immediately again after it ends, like when you insist a friend tell people a story you’ve heard a dozen times before.
That is, if you still agree to making plans with others after seeing Zola.
Grade = A
Other critical voices to consider
Aisha Harris at NPR says “It’s an extreme representation of a common feeling many Black women have felt at one time or another: How you can be taken advantage of and told everything is fine when you know in your gut that it’s not; can be told you’re overreacting to something that’s happening to you when you know you’re supposed to feel this way.”
Valerie Complex of Awardswatch says “Riley Keough is truly doing some of the best work of her career as Stefani, the culture vulture caricature who has no idea what she’s doing as she lies her way through this trip.”
Carla Hay at Culturemix says “Very few movies can successfully balance violence and raunchiness with satire and emotional gravitas. Zola makes an attempt and often succeeds.”
Jourdain Searles at OkayPlayer says “Zola, while fun, fails at interrogating why we consume these stories as entertainment without examining the gray areas that these events tend to live in.”