Review: “Zola”

You put A24’s logo on anything and I’ll give it a chance, but I’ll admit it took me a little while to try their latest production “Zola”. I honestly didn’t know much about the origin of this little film until it was released, made a splash in the niche box office, and a co-worker recommended it to me. Come to find out it’s based on a Rolling Stone article about a legendary series of Tweets from the titular Aziah “Zola” King who recounted a crazy trip she had to Florida with a stripper friend and the events that unfolded as a result. From what I gathered the film follows the Tweets pretty closely save for a few minor changes to tone down the graphic nature of the story and changing the names. It’s rare that I’m not the one recommending an A24 production but rather have one recommended to me. After finally giving it a shot courtesy of A24’s screening room last week I have to say…that certainly was an interesting movie even if it doesn’t quite live up to the high standards everyone promised me.

Screenshot Courtesy of A24

Taylour Paige plays the titular Zola while Riley Keough plays her white stripper friend, name Stefani in the film. Together this pair make the movie with Paige proving she can hold her own as a leading lady and Keough doing a surprisingly good job as a caricature of cultural appropriation without feeling too insulting. The film hinges on the dynamic between these two with Zola portrayed as a carefree risk-taker and Stefani as the most annoying character Keough could possibly cook up. Supposedly she even worked with a coach to capture the mannerisms, dialogue and persona or a white woman acting black with the sole purpose of being as unbearable as possible to the audience, and it worked. Despite minimal buildup to their friendship, which is consistent with the Tweets, it’s easy to see how these two women get along and bond. They’re not exactly likable people but they’re not really supposed to be. The idea is that we’re supposed to see these women as eccentric as we’re welcomed into their chaotic world. Both actresses to an exceptional job capturing who their characters are and what makes them tick with minimal material. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s always impressive when performers can pull it off.

Screenshot Courtesy of A24

As “Zola” progresses things get more and more insane transitioning from what could have been a simple road comedy into darker, more serious territory exploring the disturbing realities of the sex trade while also taking sly jabs at the story’s believability often inserting random Tweet noises to accentuate that this is, in fact, a story and may or may not have actually occurred as we’re seeing it. This is why I’m not as critical of the lack of true character depth as many critics have been. While I do wish we knew a bit more about these women, in the context of the film we know what we need to know. They’re kept as simple characters in an attempt to emulate the soulless nature of storytelling on social media. Nobody knew more about these women than what was provided in the original Tweets so why do we need more form them here? It feels like and no-so-subtle jab at how ridiculous it is that people invested in this crazy story about a woman they’ve never met in the first place while also acknowledging how fascinating that obsession can be. Even some of the camerawork feels like it’s meant to emulate a phone documenting the trip right down to the grainy visuals. As a plus, “Zola” gives us insight into the business of sexualization and profiting from the male including more graphic male nudity than female nudity, an interesting touch from director Janicza Bravo, who also wrote the screenplay with Jeremy O. Harris, to drive home the fact that this movie isn’t about ogling the women as much as it is about the desire of the men and what drives women to use their bodies for financial gain. There is some very interesting subtext that makes this film pretty fascinating. It’s just too bad its uneven tonal shifts water down the experience.

Screenshot Courtesy of A24

My biggest gripes with “Zola” are its pacing and inability to fully embrace its black comedy identity. By the halfway point I was finding it hard to stay invested because what started as a potentially zany road comedy slowly but surely transforms into a dark drama with mild comedic undertones and the shift is so out of left field that it took me out of the film. I think the idea was to show how Zola’s innocent trip to Florida and her willingness to trust a woman she just met quickly devolved from fun to frightening, but the execution just didn’t work for me in the end. I would have rather seen a film that balances comedic edge and dramatic storytelling more fully, keeping a consistent mix of genres from start to finish and creating added discomfort from the tendency to laugh at situations we know are very serious. That is, after all, what black comedies seek to do. “Zola” instead starts off wanting to be one thing and then becomes something completely different which can feel like a betrayal to the audience, especially those hoping to see the amusement they got from the Tweet session play out on screen. You’ll laugh plenty before feeling uncomfortable with the reality of Zola’s situation which I think could have worked but here it simply feels like too drastic a change for me. I did enjoy “Zola”, but in the end it’s a very worthy story complimented by solid performances that feels betrayed by a mishandling of the overall identity of the film.

Screenshot Courtesy of A24

“Zola” is certainly worth a watch and those who got a kick out of the original Tweet session will likely find value in how it’s portrayed on the screen. There’s some neat subtext thrown in and it’s a great first impression from director Janicza Bravo whose leading ladies bring their A-game. My one complaint, and it’s a rather big one for me, is that it fails at being a great black comedy struggling to find the balance between humor and drama often embracing one or the other but not both. It can be jarring and maybe that’s the point, but it spoiled an otherwise solid experience for me. Still, this is yet another great picture brought to us from A24 who continue to prove they have eyes for the best underappreciated films on the market today. It’s a solid movie and one I’d certainly recommend giving a shot…that is if you aren’t too uncomfortable with much more male nudity than you probably could have ever expected from a film about road tripping strippers.

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