Zola review – The truth is stranger than fiction

Zola review – The truth is stranger than fiction

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long and full of suspense”

On October 27th, 2015 a tweet storm went viral under the hashtag #TheStory. In just 148 tweets, a dancer by the
name of A’Ziah “Zola” King chronicled the craziest weekend of her life, in which she accompanied a new friend on a
trip to Florida, ostensibly to make some cash by dancing on a handful of stages throughout the Tampa club scene. It seems like an innocent enough road trip at first, but before long Zola is embroiled in some seriously scary happenings.
Pimps, prostitutes, guns, drugs, unmedicated mental disorders, human trafficking — you name it.

Written in a relaxed vernacular, Zola’s story makes a horrifying series of events accessible and, for lack of a better
term, fun. The parade of tweets centers her as the one cool head amidst a mess of dishonest, unhinged players,
and it’s her savvy willingness to be her own self-advocate that gets her home safely, and with a respectable chunk
of change in her pocket to boot. If you haven’t read the story, you simply must. There’s a reason it went viral — not
only did it introduce Twitter as a medium for long-form prose, it introduced a talented writing voice in a completely
new way, while also making the discussion of sex-trafficking accessible to millions who would have otherwise never
given it a second thought.

So naturally the story had to become a movie. And boy did it.

Taking a page out of the Harmony Korine school and imbuing it with the female gaze, Zola takes a beat-by-beat,
moment-by-moment approach to the story, hewing pretty close to the details our heroine tweeted. Yes, there are
some tonal changes and a few dramatic additions to the plot, but only so much as to build the suspense in a more
cinematic way. Otherwise, there are no embellishments to the meat of the tale, which doesn’t need an ounce of
sweetening to make it shocking as all hell.

Standing in for Zola in the film is Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Paige, through performance and
occasional narration, rings true as the same sort of clever, tough freelancer evidenced in the original tweets. Even
when she is off to the sideline of the action, her presence is always felt. And when she’s at the center of a scene,
she’s positively electric. In a story that features a roster of characters who are all varying shades of unhinged, Zola
always seems to have her shit together, and Paige makes this surface level sturdiness feel as if it is drawn from a
deep well of personality. While she is frequently the least bombastic persona on screen, she’s always the most

At her side for much of the (mis)adventure is Stefani, aka “This Bitch,” played with scummy gusto by Riley Keough
(American Honey). While a bit of a cipher in terms of character (this is by design), Keough brings Stefani to fiery life
in a way that’s almost documentary real. We’ve all known a Stefani before, and the degree to with Keough captures
that Stefani Energy (TM) is uncanny. It’s easy to see how someone as apparently savvy as Zola could fall into a road trip
with Stefani, just as it’s easy to see how Stefani could have become who she is despite starting down this path with
the best of intentions.

And Colman Domingo as the mysteriously-named X is simply terrifying. Holy hell.

Writer/director Janicza Bravo has put together one of the most visually striking non-blockbusters I’ve seen in some
time. The flick is shot on film, and she lets the graininess run parallel to the general scumminess on display. Rather
than employing tired imagery of on-screen text message exchanges, Bravo instead has her characters speaking
their texts out loud. It’s a great way to center the film around performance, rather than novelty, while also doing
something fun and, well, novel. Also fresh and exciting is the way that the sex/dancing/negotiation scenes are shot.
Typically, we see situations such as these through a male lens, which is very much not the case here. One
particular sequence, in which Stefani “tricks” for a series of paying customers, uses both comically clever editing
and the female gaze to show the “trick/john” dynamic in a way that has never been seen before. You’ll know it when
you see it, and it was here that Bravo, in my mind, when from “solid filmmaker doing a scummy dark comedy” to
“auteur changing the whole fucking game.”

I’m curious as to how much of the dialogue is improvised, given the nature of its delivery, but since the script is co-
written by Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) there’s a very real chance that the verisimilitude is lifted straight from the page.

No review of this movie would be complete without calling attention to the score by Mica Levi, who continues their work of evoking a physical response in the listener simply through sound. Under the Skin remains one of my all-
time favorite film scores, and I’m pumped to add the Zola score to my listening rotation.

At a sleek 90 minutes, Zola opens at a clip and rockets towards the finish with pitch black sense of humor and the
craft of a true clinician. I’m hesitant to call it trashy, but it certainly revels in being very frank in its approach to the
subject matter, often to the point of being calculatedly abrasive. A film based on an article based on a tweet storm
is such a roll of the dice that it’s amazing it even functions at all, and to see that it not just functions, but excels, and
does so with a “fuck you, life is dirty” air around it, is a miracle marriage of material and talent. I hope you see it and
I hope it rocks your face as it did mine.

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, based on the tweets by A’Ziah King and the article by David Kushner

Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun

Rated R, 86 minutes

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