By Lynn Venhaus
A road trip from hell, as documented on a viral Twitter thread six years ago, is the starting point for this unusual film.
The genesis of “Zola” is a 148-count tweetstorm by A’ziah King in 2015. Known as Zola, she was working as a Hooters waitress in Detroit, when a customer, an exotic dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough), convinces her to dance for some quick cash – then invites her for a weekend in Florida, also to strip, with the promise of easy money.
But the trip becomes a nightmarish 48-hour odyssey with Stefani prostituting herself while Zola is expected to be an “escort” too. Along for the ride is Stefani’s idiot boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her dangerous pimp X (Colman Domingo).
After 86 minutes, I felt like my I.Q. had dropped 50 points and I wanted to take a shower. But like a bad car wreck on the highway, you can’t quit staring at it in disbelief.
The film deals with increasingly dangerous and desperate situations, and when it involves the sex industry, that is to be expected. The film’s subject matter is sleazy, yes, but director Janicza Bravo doesn’t treat it in an overly erotic way, but rather realistically. The transactions are about survival — a way of life in a scuzzy underworld of sex and violence.
However, you are warned – the graphic sexual content includes close-ups of male genitalia – although less female nudity than one might expect.
While the cast excels at creating these outrageous characters, they really are a sad lot – and if you have seen “The Florida Project” and “Hustlers,” folks without life’s advantages. There’s also similarities to “Spring Breakers,” but really a singular situation.
Riley Keough plays Stefani, a character like the one she played in “American Honey,” only with less of a conscience and a soul. She lives out loud, on stage, and doesn’t give it a second thought. She affects a ‘street’ accent that she might think is cool or tough, but it instead pathetic.
Her doofus of a boyfriend, Derrek, hilariously played by Nicholas Braun (brilliant as Cousin Greg in “Succession,” watches YouTube.com videos and aspires to monetize such videos one day. He is clueless.
While Stefani and Derrek appear to be sorry specimens of the public school system, Zola has street smarts and learned through the school of hard knocks. She refuses to partake in X’s plan and holds her ground. But even she can’t prevent this walk on the wild side.
Just a withering look from Taylour Paige’s Zola, and you know exactly how she feels. Paige, a trained dancer, is a revelation here. Most known for a TV show, “Hit the Floor,” as Zola, she does more in one look than most people do in a string of sentences – and her side-eye is genius. You feel what she’s feeling just on body language alone.
X, as played by the sublime Colman Domingo, is a low-level con artist and morally bankrupt guy shrouded in mystery. Domingo plays him as a man used to living on the edge – but prefers to control the circus. If you saw Morgan Freeman in “Street Smart,” then you know the territory X covers.
Domingo, one of our finest actors, was memorable in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Selma” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” as Regina King’s husband. You see his name in the credits, and you know he’ll deliver. He is explosive in a long-simmering threatening way.
What parts are embellished and what areas stick to the truth aren’t clear – unless you read the 148 tweets, which are no longer on Twitter, but available on different sites.
Zola had something to say, and she let it out. This is the first film, as I recall, based on short unfiltered bursts of exasperation, frustration and just ‘let me tell you what happened to me.’
With social media so extensive in everyone’s lives, of course, we’re here now. But the film is also based on David Kushner’s article in Rolling Stone. Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote “Slave Play,” adapted it all for the screen.
The filmmaker has made some interesting choices, most of it fresh and different, which signals that an innovative artist is just getting started. She helmed another unusual indie, “Lemon,” which also opened at Sundance.
“Zola” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – not this year – and the distributors held it for a big-screen experience. A crowd viewing is the definite way to go.
Not wanting to come across as a snob or prude, this is my reaction to a seamy underbelly of society that we rarely glimpse of in such a revealing way, which is both frightening and troubling at the same time.
In the film business, we haven’t seen the last of any of the principals or the director. “Zola” is one of those zeitgeist movies people will buzz about, because, after all, those tweets went viral.
“Zola” is a 2020 drama-comedy directed by Janicza Bravo and Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun.
Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence, including a sexual assault, it runs 1 hour, 36 minutes. It is only in theaters beginning June 30. Lynn’s Grade: B-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.