Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Gia Walsh, Kara Baker, Vince Jolivette, Elizabeth Haggard and Dave Franco Director: Janicza Bravo Screenplay: Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo, Ari’el Stachel, Jason Mitchell and Sophie Hall Distributor: A24 Films
Plenty of movies have been based on plays, books, short stories, TV programs, radio shows, magazine articles and the like, and Janicza Bravo’s does list a Rolling Stone piece by David Kushner as a source for the screenplay. But the ultimate inspiration for that article—and the movie itself—is a string of Twitter posts in 2015 by A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King recounting, in goofily lurid style, a trip she took to Florida with some new acquaintances that was supposed to involve remunerative exotic dancing but veered off into prostitution. The tweets went viral.
The screenplay Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris have fashioned from the Twitter storm and Kushner’s recreation is a fairly faithful reflection of the original in narrative terms, and it tries to capture the tonal oddities of King’s social media-dictated prose too. In the end, though, it’s the look and sound of the movie that command attention; Ari Wegner’s luscious cinematography, abetted by Katie Byron’s slick production design and Derica Cole Washington’s costumes, makes every shot resemble a glossy fever dream, while Mica Levi’s spare, haunting score adds a note of off-kilter surrealism to the mix.
Otherwise, though, the treatment never fully delivers on its promise of raunchy, dangerous absurdity, and the combination of over-the-top looniness and genuine menace succeeds only spottily: try as they might, Bravo and editor Joi McMillon don’t manage to make the tonal shifts coalesce, though they do manage some striking individual moments. Still, half a loaf is better than none.
As played by Taylour Page, Zola is an exuberant but pragmatic waitress/dancer who thinks she has found a kindred spirit in Stefani (Riley Keough), a semi-ditzy blonde she serves on her restaurant shift. When out of the blue Stefani invites her on a weekend jaunt to Florida to earn big bucks in Tampa’s strip clubs, Zola bids adieu to her boyfriend Sean (Ari’el Stachel) and is off.
Of course things don’t go according to expectations. Stefani’s other traveling companions are her doofus boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and, ominously, her mercurial “roommate” (Colman Domingo), identified only as X. In fact he turns out to be her pimp.
After installing poor Derrek in a dumpy Tampa motel room, X takes the girls to a club, where they cater to the dismal crowd pole-dancing until he takes them to a fancy hotel, where they will service clients he’s recruited on Backpage. Zola refuses to prostitute herself, but takes over as Stefani’s manager, upping the charges and restraining the more dangerous customers. (Bravo and McMillon provide a rather explicit montage of the parade of men who willing to pay for her favors.)
Though she’s a virtual prisoner to X and his grim, gun-toting partner Baybe (Sophie Hall), Zola keeps her cool as her aptitude to increase profits makes her indispensable. But she’s infuriated when she realizes that Stefani was lying to her from the start, and that she’s only the latest woman her false friend has lured into X’s orbit.
The wild card in the equation turns out to be hapless Derrek, who’s been befriended by voluble but ostensibly harmless Dion (Jason Mitchell). Dion turns out to be anything but harmless, though, and by night’s end all four of the travelers are in imminent danger, only to be saved once again by Zola’s foresight. They escape and head back to Detroit, but not before Derrek goes to extremes to try to persuade Stefani to give up her reckless ways and settle down with him.
Apart from one intrusion—a grainy video in which Stefani protests that she’s the true victim in the case—the story is told from Zola’s perspective, and so she’s portrayed in semi-heroic fashion as ever-resourceful, capable of dealing with every situation no matter how threatening. Oddly, that makes her rather dull from a dramatic standpoint, and though Paige embodies the character well in every respect, she comes across as a mite colorless beside her comrades.
Keough, Braun and Domingo, on the other hand, all revel in their flashier roles. Wacky, over-the-top Stefani, dopily naïve Derrek and grimly calculating X receive broad but eye-catching treatment, with Braun delivering the majority of the laughs as a poor, pathetic sap desperate for love and oblivious to the reality around him. Among the supporting players Jason Mitchell stands out; there’s more than a hint of a young Tracy Morgan in his performance.
There’s no doubt that the sordid plot of “Zola” will turn off some viewers, but the picture’s style and zest make it a flavorful, if flawed, walk on the wild side.