Directed by Janicza Bravo.
Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Ts Madison, and Jason Mitchell.
Zola, a Detroit waitress, strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani, who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale.
Based on an explosive series of 148 tweets sent by A’Ziah “Zola” King back in 2015, this engaging yet problematic production wastes no time in trying to capture the social media thread in all its gory glory on screen.
Director Janicza Bravo, writing with Jeremy O Harris, manages to get some sense out of the story that has enough weird goings on to intrigue even the more attention deficient onlookers.
However, as with many ‘viral’ stories, there is a lacking of a greater understanding of what is going on underneath the surface.
Taylor Paige as Zola conveys an alternately wry and bewildered response to the downright odd goings on. Her friend/nemesis Stefani is played with a sort of demented frenzy by Riley Keough, employing a broad kind of accent that takes a while to adjust to.
The spare story – which reads a lot better in the original tweets than it does in the film – goes along the lines of this: Zola meets Stefani while waiting at a Hooters. They hit it off and Zola’s brand new best friend tells her that she can make good money stripping over in Florida.
Zola informs her waiting partner that she’s off for the weekend, and next day gets into a car with Stefani, her slow on the uptake boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and a mysterious ‘roommate’ referred to as X (Colman Domingo).
From there on the film is a deep dive into pulp crime activity, offset by a fairy-tale quality brought about by a dreamy visual haze and Mica Levi’s sublime musical score. The soundtrack is also injected with an incoming tweet alert effect to underline key points in the dialogue which further highlights the original source material.
The real power of the film for me was the varying trappings of truth itself. Anyone with a passing interest in the perils of social media know how easily stories can get exaggerated and reedited.
Indeed, there have been stories that the original tweets were tweaked by its author to get a greater response. It is a ‘mostly true’ story in any case, and anyone used to watching things ‘blow up’ online know that most narrators are playing to a crowd.
The micro-journalistic responses of life as we live it now is made up of all kinds of inconsistencies and shouting louder than the next user. The more follows and likes the better.
Zola is based on the original tweets and a Rolling Stone story Zola Tells All by David Kushner that followed it. The movie is at its best when it plays with the authenticity of the various stories.
One memorable scene has Stefani telling her side to camera in hilarious faux-innocence. The point being that things can be fake, but just as much fun.
There are beautiful artistic moments in the film, and the technical edits are brilliantly deployed.
One scene just before the precarious nature of the work is revealed cuts most of the audio of the main players out, leaving only the steady rhythmic beat of two youngsters bouncing a basketball around outside a building. The beat of the ball sounds out like an ominous countdown to a life changed.
Tweets and texts are also spoken to camera, bringing a stark immediacy to the picture. Unfortunately, anyone looking for a more detailed view of the emotional and psychological responses going on will largely be disappointed.
For the most part, the film works like a sort of updated Tarantino-esque pulp adventure, which is absolutely fine and good fun, until you remember that there are real people enslaved in similar scenarios to this all the time. Which may sound a bit kill-joy ish, but it’s difficult to avoid.
At points it feels uncomfortable to be looking on at the dour realities of sex work, and no matter how many weird and surreal laughs are on offer in this luridly put together production, there is always the nagging feeling that this really is not exactly funny.
While Bravo can reasonably point out that this is the challenge of the movie, the fact is, both lead characters are players in an all-too familiar sexploitation plot. The dazzling sweep of the film shows off the director’s sure management of the story, but it is mostly for glamorous effect and illusion.
While the real Zola no doubt claimed the strange story as her own, there is still the overall feeling that this is depressing rather than celebratory. No matter how dark the humour is, how many laughs can you really expect to get from sex-trafficking?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance writer and film critic.
Source via www.flickeringmyth.com