Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A24 releases the film in theaters on on Friday, July 2.
If the evolution of creativity in the 21st century means that Twitter feeds can fuel feature-length adaptations, “Zola” is a terrific place to start. Director Janicza Bravo’s zany road trip comedy about a pair of strippers on a rambunctious 48-hour Florida adventure embodies its ludicrous source while jazzing it up with relentless cinematic beats. Bravo, who co-wrote the movie with “Slave Play” breakout Jeremy O. Harris, applies the surreal and edgy sensibilities of her unsettling dark comic short “Gregory Go Boom” and the similarly outré “Lemon” to another jittery look at anxious people driven to self-destructive extremes. This time, their antics result in a rambunctious crowdpleaser made all the more compelling because it’s true.
Well, maybe. In October 2015, Detroit-based stripper A’ziah “Zola” King unleashed 144 tweets chronicling her madcap journey with new pal Jessica, who invited her on a quick jaunt down south to hit the clubs. In King’s account, the impulsive odyssey took an oddball turn when Jessica picked her up with her boyfriend and pimp in tow, as the ensuing trip eventually involved prostitution, gunfights, and even a ridiculous suicide attempt. Though aspects of that drama were embellished, “Zola” embraces the opportunity to exist within their confines, beginning with its title character (a terrific Taylour Paige) gazing at a mirror as she recites the immortal tweet that kicked things off: “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
And so it is, though it turns out the bulk of that saga fits snugly into 90 minutes: Zola instantly clicks with her new pal, here named Stefani and played by Riley Keough in a jarring, vulgar performance that embodies the wild plot at every turn. After Stefani meets Zola during her day job at a diner, the two instantly bond over their mutual interest in stripping for cash. “Spring Breakers” might seem like the obvious aesthetic comparison, though Bravo’s energetic style has more in common with early Guy Ritchie movies, where every comic beat comes equipped with the brutal sense that something might go very wrong.
However, if “Zola” simply focused on this riotous new buddy pairing, it would have enough to fill the duration of a satisfying hangout movie with no cartoonish twists. Bravo’s filmmaking captures their kinship through a restless barrage of stylistic devices that express the ephemeral social media context in which the entire story takes place: the sudden glimpse of Instagram likes flashes across the screen as they bond, and they speak their texts aloud in a hilarious alternative to closeups of phone screens (“Idk, lol” is much funnier when someone says it in conversation).
But “Zola” belongs to more than its carefree leading ladies, because the car that shows up at Zola’s home is driven by the mysterious X (a menacing Colman Domingo), the aforementioned pimp, though it takes some time for Zola to figure that out. At first, she’s stuck in the backseat with Stefani’s klutzy squeeze Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Cousin Greg from HBO’s “Succession”) and as the quartet hit the highway blasting “Hannah Montana” while frolicking about, Zola goes from party-ready to skeptical about the journey she’s signed up for.
That turns out to be the right instinct, but Zola’s already in too deep to call it quits. So begins an unsettling descent into the seedier aspects of their journey, zipping along with Bravo’s naughty sense of play in charge. Shot in gorgeous 16mm with a vibrant soundtrack of discordant rhythms by “Monos” and “Jackie” composer Mica Levi, “Zola” often unfolds at the fragmented clip of the feed that inspired it.
That sometimes means that it struggles to fit into the constraints of a linear story, and falls short of connecting the dots as the narrative builds to a clunky showdown. But that hardly matters when Bravo puts so much effort into keeping the rapid-fire pace in flux, while her small ensemble throw themselves into the unseemly hedonistic energy on display.
The movie’s unequivocal highlight comes with its tawdry middle section, as Zola decides that Stefani needs to up her game if she’s really going to commit to a night of prostitution. (“Pussy is worth thousands, bitch!”) Zola helps Stefani juggle a half-dozen clients as the evening drags on, and it’s here that Bravo truly delivers on the deranged comic tone embedded in the material, with a classical-music interlude of hotel-room clients centered on a very diverse range of genitalia, undercut by the amusing concision of Zola’s narration (“They start fuckin’/It was gross”).
The unreliable narrator behind it all provides the opportunity for a spirited tangent late in the game, when Bravo gives us Stefani’s version of her story from a Reddit post (she even gets her own credits sequence). Given these ostentatious swings, it’s a wonder why the movie settles into a less enticing climax, as the story trails off and doesn’t even follow through on the entirety of the feed. But the final moments illustrate Bravo’s penchant for elevating reckless behavior to comedic heights while maintaining a surprising degree of poignance as well. Social-media feeds can embolden subjective observations that don’t tell the whole truth, but that’s exactly what makes this particular example such a perfect fit for its adventurous director.
“Zola” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
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