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Other // R // June 30, 2021
List Price: Unknown
Social media is more than a way of keeping in touch with friends and family; it can also be used as a way to tell a story. Whether it's involving the text of Twitter or the images of Instagram, an individual's page can be viewed as their journey and their posts speak on their experiences. This is especially the case for the real narrative tweeted by Aziah "Zola" Wells, whose story captivated so many that it was adapted into a feature length film, which would go on to be distributed by A24. Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, I have been interested in checking this out. The poster reads "Y'all wanna hear a story?," and what a crazy story this is.
The film follows Zola (Taylour Paige), who immediately sets the stage, warning that the story of a friendship falling apart is not a short one, but that it is one full of suspense. She frequently speaks to the audience and while the voice-over provides narrative information, it is also used as a comedic element. While at a restaurant, she meets fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough). They quickly become close friends and are inseparable. Even when not physically together, Zola ignores her boyfriend to text with her new friend. When Stefani invites her on a road trip to Florida to dance and make some good money, she decides to join, even though they barely know each other.
Zola soon discovers that the two men joining on the road trip include Stefani's boyfriend, who she was initially told was her roommate, and a muscle-bodied stranger. What was supposed to be a fun trip including dancing for cash quickly turns into chaos involving prostitution and violence. There is a very ominous, serious core in Zola, although writer/director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris never allow the story to go all the way there. It hints at some dark places, including forced prostitution, but it keeps a sense of humor throughout its runtime, which especially holds true regarding the narration where the title character breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. Sometimes this works to the film's advantage, especially since the movie has a lot of good laughs in there. However, there are moments that it could have dug a little deeper into some of the themes that it brings up.
Bravo creates a duality throughout the film. There is a contrast created by the reality of the story being told and the inner thoughts of the lead character, such as when a backroom at a strip club morphs into a room full of mirrors. Zola and Stefani offer very different sides of the story, as there is a small amount of the feature that is based on Stefani's account that was posted to Reddit. Both of these stories are greatly empowered by the phenomenal performances by the two leads. Paige's portrayal feels true to the character, as between her comedic timing and facial expressions, she makes scenes hilarious that would not necessarily be funny on paper. Keough delivers a great performance with peaks and valleys. While she's really taking this character all the way with her mannerisms and the way she delivers her lines through most of the film, there are a few moments in there where she manages to draw sympathy from both Zola and the audience; this is quite impressive, given the nature of the character. Paige and Keough bounce chemistry off of one another in a way that is magnetic.
Similar to other projects from A24, Zola has a certain grit to it that gives off a bit of a "love-it or hate-it" essence. Some will completely be on board for the crazy trip that Bravo takes the audience on, while others simply will not get it. There are some scenes in particular that feel like they belong in the Spring Breakers universe. Visually, the story is told with a grainy presentation. The bright colors are a bit washed out to show another side of sunny Florida.
The best way to describe Zola is "chaotic." Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on the viewer. At times, the film does not really know whether it wants to lean more towards its comedic or dramatic elements. Even so, I had a lot of fun with this crazy story, despite the fact that I had never read the Twitter thread that the film is based upon until after watching the film. Even if you have read the original story, there is still plenty to enjoy with the film's telling of the plot. Paige and Keough are both stand-outs with how they handle the dramatic elements and the story's sense of humor. Even with its blemishes, Zola is wildly entertaining.