Zola Synopsis: Zola (Taylour Paige), a Detroit waitress, is seduced into a weekend of stripping in Florida for some quick cash — but the trip becomes a sleepless 48-hour odyssey involving a nefarious friend (Riley Keough), her pimp (Colman Domingo), and her simple-minded boyfriend (Nicholas Braun).
From a Twitter thread to the big screen, writer/director Janicza Bravo (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tony-winner Jeremy O. Harris) undertakes an intriguing risk with Zola. Bravo descends alongside her titular protagonist into the seedy underbelly of America’s toxic bigotry, extracting a vibrant and socially provocative tale that ranks among 2021’s finest offerings to date.
Some would consider Bravo’s transformation of segmented tweets into a succinct cinematic experience impressive enough, but the writer/director never rests on those laurels. Her second feature is equally fearless and astute, with Zola standing for far more than a sensationalized series of occurrences. Bravo intelligently crafts her protagonist’s journey as a twisted fairy tale through dreamy montages and whimsical score choices (she and Cinematographer Ari Wegner skillfully embrace subversive imagery as a means of juxtaposing Zola’s seedy environment).
Peppered with a flurrying wave of tactful phone notifications, Bravo crafts pulsating electricity as Zola’s initial unease builds to downright fear. I give Bravo credit for incorporating several bold techniques while never overworking her material. Aside from a few tricks that oversell the film’s simmering ideas, the director rarely misses a beat in incorporating thoughtful and artistically inventive imagery. I particularly enjoyed how Bravo juxtaposes Zola’s empowered sexuality versus the grotesque perversion of her creepy male clientele. She aptly views Zola’s esteemed presence while humorously critiquing the people who attempt to commodify her.
Thematically, Zola is bursting with worthwhile conceits. Bravo and Harris intelligently analyze the conditions behind our protagonist’s bizarre odyssey. The journey from Detroit to Florida brings Zola into an environment charged with racial prejudice and toxic masculinity, both of which work to turn the sex worker’s world into an uncomfortable reality of oppressive objectification. Zola impressively challenges societal standards without bluntly spelling sentiments out. A well-calibrated script from Bravo and Harris ranges from sharply-timed satire to downright disturbing revelations, with the duo’s deft touch marrying the dissident tonalities into a cohesive experience.
All of these potent ideas form a great canvas for the talented cast to shine. As the self-assured Zola, Taylour Paige delivers an impressive breakout performance brimming with nuance and vitality. In a film full of boisterous characters and strange narrative detours, Paige’s defined presence provides a much-needed center. Riley Keough’s take on Zola’s trashy “friend” could have easily slipped into caricature territory, but the actress skillfully represents the fictitious veneer behind Stefani’s posturing persona. Nicholas Bruan and Colman Domingo also stand out in their supporting roles, with Domingo, in particular, imbuing erratic energy that constantly keeps audiences on their toes.
Zola represents everything I love in filmmaking. Bravo crafts an artistically brazen and thematically rich tale full of intrigue and depth, catapulting the film’s simple roots to meteoric heights. I am very excited to see where Bravo, Harris, and the talented cast go from here.