2020 Sundance Film Festival: If you happened to be on Twitter the night of October 27, 2015, you might have borne witness to one of the most engrossing experiences ever created on the platform. It all started when A’Ziah “Zola” King tweeted four images of herself and a blonde woman and said,
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense”
What followed was a string of nearly 150 tweets laying out a story of strippers, pimps, kidnappings, shootings, and all the stuff of a Hollywood movie. And now it is a Hollywood movie, having celebrated its world premiere in Park City on Friday.
Janicza Bravo directs this sordid tale, introducing us to Zola (Taylour Paige) and her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough). From the moment they meet until Zola agrees to take off for a whirlwind trip to Florida is merely hours. The ladies quickly bonded over talk of sugar daddies and stripping. But not far down the road, Zola almost immediately realizes this is a mistake, and now she’s stuck. They are traveling with a man whose name we don’t know (Colman Domingo) and Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun). The mission: make some quick money stripping in a club or two. At least that’s what Zola is expecting until she finds herself in an upscale hotel room with Stefani as they await a client and she realizes they are being pimped out.
Building on the strange, almost unbelievable story, Bravo lays out the events just as they unfolded on Twitter, filtering it sometimes with a dreamlike haze. The use of color and sound, quick camera work, and the confined spaces of cars and hotel rooms create an overload of sensations. It isn’t a pleasant movie to watch, and it isn’t supposed to be. Much like Stefani does to Zola, though, it reels in the viewer with such speed and confidence that even when we know we shouldn’t trust it, we can’t help following along.
Everything about “Zola” is entrancing. The rapid-fire dialogue is sometimes funny and sometimes terrifying. Zola herself is smart and resourceful, keenly aware of the seriousness of her circumstances and also how to get herself out of them. Paige is a confident and captivating performer, her own reactions and expressions matching what the audience feels in any given moment.
Keough is equally captivating, but in a much different way. Stefani is at once funny and frustrating. The kind of person you’d want to root for, but also wouldn’t want to stick around with long enough to see how things work out. Keough is great with Stefani’s paradoxical nature, clearly having a lot of fun when she gets to let loose and play. And when things turn serious, she is ready for the drama too.
Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun both perform well in their roles too. Domingo plays X as someone of an ambiguous background with an accent that comes and goes. He sometimes seems, if not kind at least moderately respectful. And other times he turns into a monster. As Derrek, Braun plays a goofy guy who seems like he’s always just along for the ride. He doesn’t really serve a purpose and no one is exactly sure why he’s there, aside from the fact that he’s Stefani’s boyfriend. And yet Braun is funny and oddly endearing, even — or maybe especially — when he’s doing something stupid.
The experience of watching “Zola” is similar to watching certain other A24 works. The most recent example — though the films themselves are nothing alike — is “Uncut Gems.” There is a constant swirl of motion, increasing tension both visually and aurally. When it seems like there is a next logical step to progress the story, it takes a turn and goes a whole new direction. It is a dizzying and exciting ride that will leave you wanting to get out but also begging for more. Just like it was on the night Zola tweeted her story in 144 installments.
Bravo’s film has a definite and specific audience. But it is also the type of film that should be studied and discussed for its artistry on screen and behind the scenes. Messy, exhilarating, stressful, and bizarre, “Zola” opens a door into the future of cinema, and it is good.