Zola is a neon-tinged adult nightmare, featuring pole dances, hard core rap, violent pimps and sex work that goes from pitiful to dangerous. The movie is a darkly funny road trip, starting out innocently (!) enough as a way for Zola and her BFF Stefani to earn thousands of dollars dancing in strip clubs in Florida. Zola, the movie’s heroine quickly becomes ensnared by her Stefani and her pimp in prostitution. Zola keeps her cool, hopeful that she’ll be unharmed and free to go at the end of the weekend. The movie is an entertaining, if frustratingly superficial, ninety minute dance on the wild side. Recommended.
If David Lynch ever directed a movie about two strippers who hit the road for easy money in Florida, that movie would turn out to be Zola. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of Wild at Heart, Lynch’s art house classic from 1990. Both are road movies where good-hearted but ethically compromised protagonists head South to leave their troubles behind (for Zola it’s Miami, Wild at Heart has New Orleans). Once there, they meet with a weird and dangerous set of characters who entangle them in dangerous criminal activities. The protagonists ultimately survive their final encounter with danger, presumably more the wiser after their brush with death. Granted, the comparisons are superficial, but if you were to watch both movies back-to-back, you’ll get a feeling of deja vu.
Zola is working as a waitress in Detroit when she waits on Stefani and an African American companion. (Zola presumes he is a john, but says nothing about it.) Stefani compliments Zola on her perfect breasts, then asks her if she dances. The two proceed to bond the following night over dancing for easy money at a local strip club. Stefani has added a jolt of energy to Zola’s hum-drum life. She’s clearly dissatisfied with her day job and her boyfriend’s lack of drive. He’s good in bed but he comes off as dull, and spends his free time playing video games. Zola’s attention is quickly absorbed by her fast friendship with Stefani, tweeting with her whenever she’s spending time with her boyfriend, even when the two are out to dinner.
Stefani tells Zola that a friend of hers made $5,000 a night dancing in Florida, and asks Zola to join her. For reasons never made clear, Zola accepts Stefani’s invitation to travel to Florida without hesitation. Even Zola’s boyfriend is dubious at Zola taking a trip with someone she’s only known for a day. In a plot that is filled with characters making incredulous choices, this is only the first.
Chaperoning Zola and Stefani on their drive down to Florida are Zola’s boyfriend Derreck and his roommate, an African American man who’s name Zola says she never heard for 48 hours. (He’s referred to in the credits as “X”.) Zola initially is fine with the change of plans, even bonding with everyone over a rap song where “Miley Cirus” and “Hannah Montana” is repeated endlessly. As the drive wears on, Zola becomes increasingly annoyed with Stefani’s urban affectations. Derreck seems incredibly dense, and Zola admits in a voice-over that she never learned what Zola’s boyfriend does for a living.
Once in Florida, X leaves Derreck at a crappy motel to watch over the girl’s belongings while he drives Zola, Stefani to a club to dance. Zola is dismayed when Stefani tells her they need to wear pasties, since they aren’t licensed dancers in Florida. One of the movie’s funniest lines comes from a patron who tells Zola she looks like someone, and it is the last person you (anyone?) would think Zola looks like. Stefani tells Zola she has an offer for a private dance, which she declines, making it clear that she does not want to get paid to have sex with a stranger. Stefani has other ideas, however. She takes pictures of the two of them and immediately posts them on Backpage, and Zola is stunned when she learns that she’s being advertised as a prostitute and was never asked.
Zola threatens to walk out on Stefani and X, but X threatens her into getting back into the car. I don’t know why Zola felt intimidated by X. He’s just one guy, and Derreck is completely harmless. But Zola goes along with it, hoping that X will let her go at some point. Zola and Stefani wind up at a hotel, where Stefani’s first john is already on his way. When he arrives, he looks a bit dangerous, possibly a biker. Zola stands by in the back of the room, trying hard not to be noticed while the two have sex, which Zola describes as “gross”. After Stefani’s john leaves, Zola is shocked that he only paid Stefani $150. Zola says that $150 is what Stefani can get dancing on stage, and that her nether regions are worth thousands. (I’m toning things down a bit. This is a family blog, after all.)
In a surprising turn of entrepreneurship, Zola updates Stefani’s Backpage profile with new photos, and lists her services as $500 for fifteen minutes. Zola’s reasoning probably is that if she can help Stefani make more money, X will let her go home. Zola helps Stefani make $8,000 in one night, having sex with a sad looking group of white men with an even sadder looking set of utensils, if you know what I mean. All of the movie’s graphic nudity is male, by the way. And all of the penises on view are flaccid, which, when presented as an Instagram feed, is visually novel and hilarious. (Fun fact: showing male members in an unexcited state is a necessity to avoid an X rating from the MPAA.)
Zola’s plan works, but too well. X is impressed with Zola’s results, and keeps her against her will. While Zola is smart, she’s not a schemer like X. Not only is he able to keep Stefani under his spell, continuing her career as a prostitute even with her boyfriend in tow, he pivots from forcing Zola to prostitute herself to being Stefani’s handler. Now he can have Zola oversee Stefani’s appointments while he tends to other business matters. (What those are is never explored.)
While sex work in a hotel room comes with a degree of danger, the hotel surroundings at least provide a modicum of security for Zola and Stefani. The chances of a john doing something crazy in a place where others are within earshot is unlikely. However, X sees dollar signs in the Zola and Stefani pairing, and schedules Stefani for in-home appointments. These are much more lucrative, but leave the two with no safety net. Also, in one troubling development, the johns at one house insist on a gang-bang with Stefani, something Zola insists X did not agree to. Zola tries to reach X on her phone, but he never answers. While Zola looks stunned and horrified, Stefani doesn’t appear concerned at all with the change of plans. In fact, she seems happy to be the one who is the object of desire for at least a dozen men, and will satisfy all of them herself.
Throughout all of this, Derreck remains thick as a brick, unwilling to believe that Stefani is turning tricks for X. As far as stupid boyfriends go, Derreck is high on the list. He says “Yo” so many times I think he killed the word for good. Derreck is completely clueless in his interactions with others. His aimless wanderings get him noticed by Dion, another hustler who has set up shop at the seedy motel. Once X realizes that Derreck has attracted the attention of a rival hustler, they all flee to another hotel. However, since the source of the appointments X sets up for Stefani and Zola are unverifiable to the point of being anonymous, no one realizes that Dion has set a trap for them. The hotel room confrontation that serves as the dramatic climax (sorry) of the movie is well shot, edited and acted, and I don’t want to spoil how it turns out.
I have to give the makers of Zola some serious props. Hardly any movies are released in today’s market that are a hard R. A safer bet would have been for the movie to debut on PVOD or a streaming service like Netflix. Zola was set to be released in 2020, but with theaters either closed or open with reduced capacity due to the pandemic, the filmmakers held out for a theatrical release this year. Like many movies made with a cinematic eye, Zola is one where its up-front view of depravity achieves a kind of tawdry grandeur on the big screen. I wouldn’t say you absolutely need to see it on the big screen to appreciate it, but it helps.
As a piece of filmmaking, Zola has many praiseworthy elements both in front of and behind the camera. The acting, direction, cinematography and editing is solid throughout, bringing the unlikeliest source of material for a movie to life. Zola has energy in spades, shifting seamlessly from zany to outlandish to deranged to homicidal without missing a beat. Taylour Paige delivers a standout performance as Zola. Director Janicza Bravo has described Paige’s Zola as a silent movie character, where her face reveals what she is too afraid to say. That’s definitely true, but Zola is also the straight (wo)man to Riley Keough’s cartoonish Stefani. (Think Oliver and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello.) Both Paige and Keough approach their roles with gusto, making their characters distinctly individual and memorable.
Colman Domingo’s performance as X was amazing as well. At first, I thought X was being played by Idiris Elba, but then realized I’d seen Domingo before in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The way his accent went from American to Caribbean in several scenes helped define his character as someone who always wants to keep you off guard, and should not be trusted. His portrayal as a pimp fits the mold of other cinematic pimps: he’s equal parts charming, diabolical, manipulative and dangerous, and you never know which side you’re going to get at any moment.
Janicza Bravo expertly guides us through Zola’s frequent tonal shifts, from hyper-reality of strip clubs to highs and lows of Backpage sex work. She trusts that the story’s inherent craziness will hold our attention without overplaying them. A Twitter thread wasn’t much to build a movie out of, but she and co-screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris managed to create a story with a narrative arc from it. The movie is a bit uneven, however, and even at a busy ninety minutes, has moments where everyone seems to be waiting for the next tweet to signal what should happen next. Tweeting, by definition, is a fragmented, disjointed narrative. If anything, Zola shows how difficult it is to make a movie based on a series of tweets (148 to be exact). That Zola succeeds in being an entertaining movie is a testament to all of the creative talents involved.
As a movie, Zola is a chronology of Zola’s experiences, and her funny and snarky reactions to those experiences. The movie does not offer any serious interrogation of those experiences, however. The movie consciously refuses to explore why these characters do what they do. On that level, Zola is frustrating, offering no narrative viewpoint on the events depicted onscreen. The characters and events in Zola are tailor made for some degree of introspection, or at least an examination of their motives, but none is provided. The characters make many highly questionable choices, for reasons that are never explained. At its core, Zola is a chronology of events that happened to Zola, and that she provides tweet-worthy commentary on, nothing more.
As depicted in the movie, Zola is a character in conflict with herself. She refuses to prostitute herself, but has no qualms with becoming Stefani’s de-facto pimp. She also stays with the group, seemingly afraid to get on X’s bad side since he knows where she lives and where she works. However, even if X lets Zola leave, he still knows those things, and could cause trouble for Zola in the future.
Zola’s approach to sex work is a curious one. The movie tries very hard to not present it in a judgemental way, but uses Zola’s facial expressions repeatedly to render some form of judgment. At various points in the story, Zola looks dismayed, disgusted, shocked, possibly all three at once. All Zola says about the sex acts Stefani engages in is that they are gross, but I doubt that is all she is thinking. The voice-over narration includes all of Zola’s funny asides, but never anything insightful. Zola is an interesting character to watch, but we never really know how she feels about anything that happens to her.
Roger Ebert once remarked in a review, “I prefer to evaluate a film on the basis of what it intends to do, not on what I think it should have done.” For what it aims to be, Zola is at turns darkly funny, shocking, horrifying and even scary. Zola has a lot of funny dialog, and many of the individual vignettes are compelling, filled with tension and danger. But the characters (including Zola herself) are very thinly drawn, with no time spent exploring their backstory or motivation. Just like a viral twitter thread, Zola is entertaining at skin deep level. It holds your attention but never explains what is happening. Zola barrels along for ninety minutes and provides a lot of entertainment for your movie-going dollar. Ultimately, it’s a fast food meal that has aspirations of profundity that the material doesn’t justify. It may be the best Whopper you’ll ever eat, but in the end it’s just a Whopper.