The Movie Waffler New to VOD - ZOLA | The Movie Waffler

New to VOD - ZOLA

zola review
A waitress gets roped into a weekend of sex and violence in Florida.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Janicza Bravo

Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Jason Mitchell

zola poster

Director Janicza Bravo's Zola isn't the first movie to be adapted from a Twitter thread (I believe that honour goes to the 2013 Thai coming-of-age drama Mary, Is Happy, Mary Is Happy). That said, it's certainly the most high profile movie to mine social media for its narrative.

In 2015, a waitress named Aziah "Zola" King posted a 148 tweet thread detailing a manic weekend in Florida that took in stripping, prostitution, possibly murder and a suicide attempt. Filmmakers immediately began jostling for the rights to Zola's story, and so it arrives as an anarchic, blackly comic thriller with shades of Harmony Korine and Russ Meyer.

zola review

Stepping into Zola's high heels is Taylour Paige, whom we meet during a shift at her restaurant. It's there she meets stripper Stefani (Riley Keough), who immediately gets in her good books by complimenting her breasts. Following Zola's shift, the pair hook up for a night of debauchery and become fast friends. When Stefani invites Zola on a "ho trip" to Florida to make money at a strip club, the latter accepts, much to her boyfriend's chagrin. What Zola isn't prepared for is the company of Stefani's manchild boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her "roommate", an unidentified Nigerian (Colman Domingo) who is clearly her pimp.

The chaotic narrative that follows may be adapted from a Twitter thread, but despite its very modern origins it plays out like a love letter to '70s grindhouse cinema. Zola and Stefani go on the sort of adventure that wouldn't be out of place in a Roger Corman produced, Jonathan Kaplan/Demme directed b-movie, and you could easily imagine Pam Grier and Rainbeaux Smith in the lead roles. Ari Wegner's grainy 16mm cinematography adds greatly to this feeling.

zola review

As with the original thread, Zola has all the ingredients for a juicy thriller, but the film also bears the burden of mining a story from social media. Though the narrative has been spiced up in parts, it still never quite flows smoothly, ultimately petering out rather than climaxing. As a story it's a bit limp, and falls somewhere between being larger than life yet not quite dramatic enough for the screen.

If its narrative doesn't quite pass muster, it's as a character drama that Zola succeeds. Bravo's direction of her main characters reveals their true selves without ever resorting to backstory revelations. Everyone here seems to be escaping their lives, and are unwilling to divulge any personal details. Zola is the sort of taciturn lead we just don't see much in American cinema, and Bravo uses Paige's expressive and judgemental eyes as a barometer to set the temperature of every situation she finds herself in. Conversely Keough's Stefani never shuts up. She's constantly talking nonsense in a cringey appropriation of ghetto speak, but we're kept guessing as to her true intentions throughout. Her Nigerian pimp hides his real accent until a scenario requires him to come off as intimidating, likely aware of Americans' suspicions of foreigners.

zola review

It's commendable that Bravo has taken what is essentially a rambling thread of verbal exposition and transformed it into such a cinematic piece of storytelling. The Florida tourist board likely won't be tapping her up for any promos, as she renders the Sunshine State as an approximation of Hell, with her heroines descending its various levels as their insane weekend progresses. There are unsettling touches like a scene soundtracked by a kid bouncing a basketball like some foreboding metronome, and off-kilter camera angles that create a sense of unease. I'd love to see what she might do with a horror movie.

Zola is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2021 movie reviews