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Sundance 2020: Zola Review

Zola is custom-tailored for a generation of moviegoers who suffer from attention issues. I don’t mean this in a condescending way.

Writer-director Janicza Bravo’s film is an adaptation of a viral Twitter thread that begins with, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Let me tell you right off the top, the story only gets crazier from there.

Sex, violence, and comedy collide in a debauchery supernova. This infamous story was always destined for the big-screen treatment, and only a filmmaker as unique as Bravo could do the premise justice.

Good luck finding a true story more outlandish than Zola. Knowing that what unfolds is (mostly) true is all part of the fun. To maximize your viewing pleasure I suggest going in with as few details as possible. I’ll only give you the bits and pieces of story you’ll find out from the film’s advertising campaign.

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The story is about the titular Zola (Taylour Paige), who works as a waitress at a restaurant. One afternoon, a new acquaintance named Stefani (Riley Keough) recruits Zola for a trip down to Tampa to earn some easy cash dancing. What you need to know is all that easy cash doesn’t come so easy. What unfolds is a frantic weekend of fast money, sketchy men, and a whole lot of side-eye.

Zola and Stefani make one hell of an on-screen duo. Zola is the stripper version of a buddy cop movie if the buddy cops were really just Facebook friends. Paige and Keough deliver two great, though vastly different performances that are each worth the price of admission.

Keough’s turn as Stefani is the showier role of the two. She is a loud, crass, and tacky white girl that is unapologetically hood. Some may find this big performance cartoonish and inline with an SNL parody. But let me tell you, I grew up around the type of women Keough based this caricature on. For a film that often strays into the absurd, this character feels 100% authentic.

Zola, on the other hand, has a cool and calm demeanour, and her thoughts are hard to gauge. She often hangs back, stoically observing all the craziness happening around her this movie is jam-packed with crazy events. Paige has the tough job of doing a lot of communicating with only her eyes. It helps that Bravo uses plenty of voiceover to tell us what’s going on in Zola’s head.

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Zola might be 2020’s flashiest film. Editor Joi McMillon cuts the picture with the rapid-fire rhythms of a text conversation. And the chirp of Twitter notifications often punctuates the ladies’ conversations. Halfway through the film, there’s a delirious sex montage that revels in the contours of the male body. Another standout sequence sees the film leave Zola behind and hand over narration duty to an unreliable narrator. Bravo is always changing things up and parsing out the story in unexpected ways. She loves keeping her audience off balance. Between the snappy edits and the many visual flourishes, Zola leaves no time for your mind to wander.

As the plot descends into chaos, Zola’s world grows darker. Literally. Cinematographer Ari Wegner finds dazzling ways to represent Zola’s emotional journey visually. Zola and Stefani are smitten with each other when they first meet, and while their courtship takes place we experience their world as a neon-lit Floridian fairy tale. As the story gets darker, so does the film’s colour palette, until we mostly find Zola in dimly lit rooms cloaked in shadows. Mica Levi’s dreamy score feels right at home in Zola’s heightened world. The music shifts from ethereal to menacing as events get more dangerous.

It’s too bad this movie didn’t receive the title Hustlers. This story is about two women using the only tools they have to get ahead in life. They’re not educated or well-read, but Zola has a degree in the school of life. Her beauty opens up a narrow lane of opportunity to succeed. She has the power to put men under her beguiling spell, and she knows how to make the most of this talent.

The title Parasite wouldn’t be out of place either. People feeding off someone else’s hard work is a recurring theme. Men leech off women, women take advantage of men, and women do other women dirty. If you want to take the parasite metaphor one step further, Stefani’s entire persona comes from appropriating black culture.

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Bravo makes juggling Zola’s many tones look effortless. The film is an astute social satire, a hilarious crime caper, and a terrifying cautionary tale. Much like last year’s sun-kissed Florida melodrama Waves, Zola offers a tsunami of sensory overload; a surreal, darkly funny, cinematic fever dream. Zola may not tell the year’s most profound story, but once the movie has you in its grip you’ll enjoy yourself too much to care.

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