The extent to which cell phones, social media and the internet shape our modes of communication and connection informs every aspect of the propulsive storytelling in the spiky dark comedy-thriller Zola. This cautionary tale about the perils of fast friendship and premature trust has been ingeniously adapted by director Janicza Bravo and Slave Play dramatist Jeremy O. Harris from a barrage of 144 tweets in which Detroit waitress and exotic dancer A’Ziah King shared details of a nightmarish Florida road trip, which became a viral sensation in 2015. It makes Hustlers look like a Disney movie.
The A24 release could almost be part of a young-women-behaving-badly trilogy with two other films from that distributor, Spring Breakers and The Florida Project, also set in similarly seedy Sunshine State milieux. The notoriety of #TheStory, as the saga became known on social media, the magnetic yin/yang symbiosis of divine leads Taylour Paige and Riley Keough and the exhilarating vitality of the filmmaking craft should fuel audience interest.
It also won’t hurt that the movie’s attitudes feel so grounded in the present moment of female-forward narrative. While it’s the story of one woman whose body is commodified by a controlling pimp, the dominant perspective is that of another woman who never surrenders her cool-headed agency. Not for nothing does the real Zola describe herself on Twitter as “angry black hottie.”
The opening scene establishes Bravo’s striking visual imagination and inventive use of music as composer Mica Levi’s dreamy glissando keyboard riffs accompany a shot of Zola (Paige) and Stefani (Keough) touching up their makeup and hair in front of a wall of mirrors. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” asks Zola in a voiceover. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Rewinding to the start, the two meet when Zola is waiting tables and customer Stefani admires her form. They bond over the discovery that both are dancers (Zola has a pole in her living room for practice) and establish their instantaneous sisterhood in a funny slangy exchange that’s amusingly subtitled: “I see you.” “I feel seen.” When Stefani, who has a young child to support, calls up and suggests they go to Florida for a weekend, where they can make up to $5,000 a night dancing in Tampa strip clubs, Zola is surprised that someone she’s known for one day is proposing “a ho trip.”
Zola already starts in with suspicious side-eye and inner-voice skepticism (much of it lifted directly from King’s tweets) when Stefani rolls up with her dim-bulb boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her flashy “roommate” (Colman Domingo), identified in the credits as “X” and later revealed to be her Nigerian pimp. “He takes care of me,” explains Stefani, which gives Zola a pretty clear picture.
Time stamps appear on the screen to mark the group’s progress as they install Derrek in a Tampa dive motel and head to a club where the two women do OK, even if Zola nixes all private dance requests. She gets more nervous when X reappears at closing time and asks if the girls are ready to make some serious cash, having posted their selfies on sex-for-pay site Backpage. But Zola’s attempts to extricate herself cause X to turn threatening, which leaves her trapped as a wingman in an increasingly surreal odyssey of sleaze, danger and violence.
Considering the lurid nature of the story — which was embellished to some degree in King’s tweets and has acquired additional layers of what co-writer Harris called “fabulation” for the film — Bravo (Lemon) brings an infectious lightness of touch, veering adroitly between sparky humor and Lynchian weirdness.
Developments include a series of tricks with johns seen in an unflinchingly graphic screen scroll; a gang-bang booking with a bunch of unsavory dudes, one of whom states the obvious when he says, “We ain’t proper”; a tense interlude with a rival hustler (Jason Mitchell) who doesn’t appreciate strangers doing business in his backyard; the additional threat of a mean-looking blonde Amazon in X’s orbit (Sophie Hall, hilariously deadpan); and a spectacularly inept suicide attempt.
Many of the big laughs come from Derrek, who is so guileless he’s almost endearing in a performance full of choice bits of physical comedy from Braun, one of the breakout stars of Succession. His pleading with Stefani to stick by her repeated promises to stop turning tricks makes him hopelessly naïve, but the character is too sweet to be entirely pathetic. Even X has his charms in Domingo’s wily turn, masking the ruthless hustler behind a megawatt smile.
The movie’s driving force, however, is the chemistry between Paige and Keough, right down to their slinky side-by-side grace as they sashay into each new location on vertiginous heels, dressed to slay.
Stefani (the name is a fictionalized version of Jessica from King’s original telling) is thoroughly reprehensible trash, and it emerges that Zola is not the first woman she has duped into being a sidekick in her sex-work exploits. But Keough beguiles the audience in much the same way Stefani beguiles poor Derrek, layering a veneer of babydoll innocence over an Atlanta-style street patois, described by the filmmakers as a “blaccent.” Keough has played variations on this character before, notably in American Honey, but Stefani might be her most fearlessly out-there work.
Zola operates according to completely different rules, and while she uses sex to confirm who’s in charge early on with her long-term boyfriend (Ari’el Stachel), it’s clear that she’s savvy enough not to make that a necessity. The movie treats her with such respect she’s almost heroic, and while she’s realistic about the temptations of easy money for an attractive 20-year-old woman, she’s also unbending about what’s off-limits in terms of her body.
More or less playing straight man to Keough’s comically unflappable liability, the incandescent Paige conveys the disappointment, even disdain, of Zola for a woman she believed was a friend, but also subtly introduces notes of poignancy as she figures out ways to stay safe in the stickiest situations. Her self-possession is a thing of beauty.
There’s cool beauty, too, in the look of the film, shot on 16mm by Ari Wegner like a sinister fairy tale, in vivid hues that play up the heat and warmth of the Florida light but also the lurking menace of its nights. Joi McMillon’s zippy editing is key to the sheer buoyancy and energy of the storytelling, often mirroring the quick-hit attention span of social media, with appropriate sound effects to reinforce that association. And the mix of Levi’s distinctive score with an eclectic music selection (the use of 1960s female doo-wop group The Clickettes’ “Because of My Best Friend” is especially gorgeous) makes for a movie about the grime and gruesomeness of sex trafficking that’s strangely sensual. Not to mention laugh-out-loud funny.
Production companies: Killer Films, Ramona Films, Gigi Films
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo, Ari’el Stachel, Jason Mitchell, Sophie Hall
Director: Janicza Bravo
Screenwriters: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, based on the tweets by A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King and the Rolling Stone article by David Kushner
Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Gia Walsh, Kara Baker, Vince Jolivette, Elizabeth Haggard, Dave Franco
Executive producers: A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King, Jennifer Konawal, David Kushner
Director of photography: Ari Wegner
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Derica Cole Washington
Music: Mica Levi
Editor: Joi McMillon
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Casting: Kim Coleman