Director: Janicza Bravo
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
At a Press Inclusion reception on the eve of Sundance 2020, in conversation with Rotten Tomatoes, Lemon director Janicza Bravo mentioned that she hates reading reviews of her films. I suppose that’s going to change this week. The press screening of Zola, her latest feature, ended with a warm reception (I could swear I heard clapping) from a notoriously brisk crowd of critics. Zola was already one of those “buzzy” festival titles on several pre-Sundance lists. More so, after Bravo described the film as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets (more like hooks up with) Spring Breakers without the acid and alcohol. Not to mention the presence of the gloriously fluid Riley Keough and even Nicholas Braun, better known as Cousin Greg in HBO’s Succession. But it’s really the context behind Zola that makes it – in more ways than one.
Zola is based on a viral 148-tweet thread in 2015 by Detroit waitress A’Ziah “Zola” King, about a spontaneous road trip she took to Florida with a hustling white stripper. The trip sounded like a surrealistic too-Judd-Apatow-to-be-true crime caper sans the drugs and wasted masculinity: prostitution, orgies, pimps, murder, almost-suicide, gangsters, guns, you name it. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took notice. I looked up the tweetstorm before the screening, and I’m glad I did. It’s important to read the thread to understand how accurately Janicza Bravo has interpreted the sound of Twitter.
For one, King’s storytelling is inspired and imaginative – outrageous, funny, twisted, angry, sad and self-reflective all at once. In that sense, Zola is truly a modern social media movie – it is designed, both structurally and visually, with the sort of irreverent stop-start rhythm that only the 140-character word-limit can induce.
For one, King’s storytelling is inspired and imaginative – outrageous, funny, twisted, angry, sad and self-reflective all at once. In that sense, Zola is truly a modern social media movie – it is designed, both structurally and visually, with the sort of irreverent stop-start rhythm that only the 140-character word-limit can induce. The awkward narrative beats channel this unrehearsed tempo in an entertaining marriage of digital flimsiness and real-life absurdity. The protagonist Zola (Taylour Paige) and partner-in-grime Stefani (Riley Keough) converse in the kind of choreographed quasi-teen-drawl tone that can only have been the sassy brainchild of a charismatic African-American narrator. They speak in a puppeteered way that counts on the viewer to understand that this is literally how the story was described rather than how it’s being cinematically interpreted; Bravo retains the spirit of live commentary (you can also hear the twitter pings) because that’s what made the tale so famous. The participants – an eccentric pimp who randomly switches accents, an oversensitive nerd-boyfriend, dozens of horny male clients – exhibit an air of character-ship, deliberately playing the roles we might have imagined them to play rather than the people they actually were.
A Rolling Stone article later revealed that, despite the overall gist being authentic, there were many sensationalized inconsistencies in King’s account of the events. Which is fine as far as serious reportage is concerned, but it’s precisely these exaggerations – the cultural embroidery, exclamatory moods and stilted leaps of faith – that make Zola such a morbidly alluring based-on-true-rumours script. For instance, the camera closes in on their faces to mark the ‘mic-drop’ moments, often leaving the room in splits. The grainy B-movie texture suits the motel-mopey material, while the deadpan pace of scenes indicates a self-aware style of acting that consciously loses itself in a vacuum “between” the tweets. At times, they’re most believable when they defy logic and editing patterns. (At one point, a redneck at a strip club sticks a dollar bill into Zola’s thong and sincerely remarks, “Damn, you remind me of Whoopi Goldberg”: Paige’s reaction, even as she gyrates back onto the pole, is priceless – you can sense the eyebrow-raising emojis).
Taylour Paige oozes reluctant sex appeal in a role that requires her to be simultaneously addicted to and wary of her new friend. She distinguishes herself from a fictionalized Hangover-level hero by swaying between dreamy-nightmare expressions and nightmarish-dream paranoia. But the star of the show is Riley Keough’s Stefani: There’s not a moment where her self-destructive persona doesn’t transform Zola into a hypnotic tragicomedy. She makes it easy to believe that no degree of substance abuse might have injected Keough’s personality with any more weapons than she already wields. Most importantly, she plays Stefani like a trashy highway-hit version of Caroline Calloway, the utterly delusional and preciously privileged Instagram influencer who got (in)famous after her ex-friend Natalie wrote a long column that outed her as a fake. Which is a tough thing to do – because she essentially elevates the aura of King’s tweetstorm into the same literary bracket as Natalie’s beautifully expressed The Cut article. That’s social media for you. If you’re lucky enough, the right director might just turn your twitter profile into an author bio. And your timeline into a rip-roaring line of smartphone time.