From the outside looking in, a movie about a pair of strippers who go on the road to make extra money in Tampa is going to alienate a certain percentage of the general moviegoing audience. However, Zola exudes style, humor, and intensity as one of the year’s best and most original films.
This is one of those stories that exemplify the saying: truth is stranger than fiction. I think it’s technically adapted from a David Kushner article in Rolling Stone, but it’s all based on a series of tweets by A’Ziah King (who also got executive producer cred for this).
Adapting this kind of story is uniquely challenging and you may think the last thing you want to watch is an adaptation of someone’s Twitter posts. However, the presentation is exceptional and completely engaging. Colorful and creatively shot, Ari Wegner’s cinematography helps breathes unique energy into this film. It may only be director Janicza Bravo’s sophomore feature but her filmmaking and storytelling decisions are fantastic. Even the sound design and music supervision are woven in beautifully.
She co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy O. Harris and they did a marvelous job balancing the tone. For the most part, the dialogue and characters are leading the way with humor, but there are several times where things get very frightening and/or otherwise uncomfortable in a hurry and it’s not accidental either. The lifestyle and behavior of the characters put them in some precarious situations but the humor disarms you along the way to make the tonal switches more impactful.
In addition to all behind-the-camera strengths, we are treated to several amazing performances. Taylour Paige shows remarkable range and strength in the titular role of Zola. As the narrator, she has to be likable and sympathetic but, there’s so much going on around her, it’s often her body language that communicates the most. Riley Keough has long been a darling of indie cinema and she absolutely knocks it out of the park as Stefani. She isn’t a character you particularly like, but she’s insanely watchable nonetheless.
Colman Domingo is one of those actors who’s so good, he just keeps stacking up strong performances and this was no exception. He too is so damn charismatic, that he’s completely mesmerizing even when he’s terrifying. Nicholas Braun basically plays the exact opposite as Stefani’s doormat boyfriend Derrek. Goofy, awkward, and love-struck, Braun’s delivery and demeanor are a great fit for the principal cast.
Clearly not intended for everyone, this movie is executed with exceptional craft and vision. The odds of it getting recognized are pretty low but it’s easily in the top-5 films I’ve seen this in 2021. If you can get past the superficial stuff, there’s a very well-made movie waiting for you.
Recommendation: If you aren’t immediately offended by strippers and the accompanying sexuality, see this movie for its sense of humor, visual storytelling, and wonderful performances.