Sundance 2020: Zola

Rating: 3.5/4

You know the story (or maybe not). In 2015, a Detroit waitress Aziah “Zola” King posted a 148-tweet thread of a wild ride to Florida with a fellow exotic dancer. The thread broke twitter, the internet, and reality. In the history of movies, adaptive films have arisen from radio, television, books, and articles. Never before Twitter. Janicza Bravo’s dark comedy Zola is a twisting synergy of social media language with cinematic vernacular, which establishes the director as a major force. 

Bravo’s debut feature film operates firstly through its technical style. Zola (Taylour Paige) initially encounters Stefani (Riley Keough) at the restaurant the former serves at. A patron, Stefani becomes fast friends with Zola. Both are strippers and find the other amusing. When Stefani shares information about a strip club in Florida that supposedly is a gold mine, Zola agrees to a road trip. Accompanying the pair, are the initially mysterious X (Colman Domingo) and Stefani’s cuckold boyfriend Derrek (Nicholaus Braun). 

Through the initial minutes, Bravo and editor Joi McMillon rely on freeze frames for asides. Moreover, in these asides screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris (best known as the creator of the production Slave Play) and Bravo marinate social media jargon into their script. In some ways, this style opens Zola into becoming dated fairly quickly, but it also acts as a time capsule of this era, which isn’t a bad thing. With the film’s sound design, the sound effect of tweets initially distracts but soon becomes a necessary symphonic element to the film, just as much as the score. 

Zola is also buoyed by its exceptional cast. Keough, who has been doing fine work that’s brought her on the cusp of super stardom, adapts a Black persona in terms of speech and body language. The risk by her is exceptional, considering that any performance not fully committed to would probably be a career-ender. Instead, she’s often the focal point of the film’s most comedic moments. “I fuck with Jesus,” is going to be the catchphrase of 2020. Meanwhile, Braun as the oafish Derrek displays Big Adam Driver Energy while Paige touts her leading lady credentials. However, Domingo in his ability to code switch between his charismatic cool voice and an unhinged Jamaican accent often steals many of the scenes. 

While some portions of Zola do unintentionally welcome discomfort, such as Jason Mitchell playing a prominent role (there’s one scene that left me queasy), Bravo’s dark comedy remains an entertaining and unpredictable romp throughout. And though the final act slightly unravels, the narrative’s nonsensical events and structure hides such weaknesses. 

In the end, Zola is meant to be a construct as much as anything else. It also reflects the form of Twitter. What threads have we read, even the best ones, that haven’t tailed off in asides? In any case, in marrying the language of social media with cinema, Zola is a blinding success whose brilliance will only reveal itself more over time. Moreover, its comedy so intertwines itself with a uniquely Black sense of humor: from the prayer in the strip club to the lampooning of Keough’s Stefani, that its brilliance will also require non-Black audiences to slightly catch up.             

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