Zola, to an extent, is experimental with its narrative. While it flows coherently, the film is very much still in tune with its source material – a series of tweets explaining a story that’s “strange yet true” – and presents itself as someone spinning you a wild yarn (intercut with tangents and outbursts).
I’m unfamiliar with filmmaker Janicza Bravo (Lemon) but, if this movie is any indication of how much of a risk-taker she is, she exhibits plenty of skill with Zola. Not only is she responsible for how the film is structured (she also co-wrote the film with Jeremy O. Harris), she has an impeccable ability to balance extreme tones and communicate that to her performers. It’s an improvement on the atmosphere Sean Baker tried to convey with his overrated hit Tangerine. Both movies deal with a stunted social scene but where Tangerine was crass and violent, Zola finds its own nuance that allows a connection of relatable unease to form between its audience and its outrageous characters.
Zola is equal parts funny and scary, as we watch the titular stripper (Taylour Paige) realize she doesn’t know her new dancer bestie Stefani (The Lodge’s Riley Keough) as well as she thought. Stefani invites Zola on a trip that’s guaranteed to be fun and lucrative, but Zola’s apprehension grows as she meets the other attendees and the travel takes her further out of town. Instead of fleshing out this friendship between Zola and Stefani, the story decides to focus on the trip as it increasingly spirals out of the control. It’s a bold choice for Bravo considering they’re depending on this event to provide the needed background and characterization for the film, but the decision works. Aside from the experimental narrative appropriately skimming over details, each key beat within this wacky trip reveals more about who Zola and Stefani are as individuals while also providing hints as to how they allowed themselves to get into these messy situations. Driving the plot forward is the inclusion of an enigmatic brute referred to as X (Colman Domingo), who is always in control of whatever situation the story proposes. Sometimes he’s charismatic, and other times he’s terrifying – another prime balance that helps contribute towards the lingering distrust that’s always present in Zola.
The last few scenes of Zola are wonderfully warped and ambiguous, which may leave audiences wanting something more conclusive. But as the ending revs back up towards its credits, Bravo’s film is reminding audiences that the party never ends until we can identify what’s fuelling the ride. A final exchange with Stefani confirms that Zola has figured out what to do.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie