VOD film review: Zola
James R | On 20, Nov 2021
Director: Janizca Bravo
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
The name “Aziah King” might not mean much to many people, but “Zola”? For anyone who’s spent time on social media in the past decade, that’s likely to bring to mind an epic Twitter thread from 2015 that told the story of how a waitress wound up in a nightmare situation on the underbelly of Florida. It swiftly went viral and, soon enough, the thread was optioned to be made into a film.
Director Janizca Bravo more than lives up to the kind of dizzying self-awareness that such a deal entails, whipping the thread up into a cocktail of post-modern flourishes, garish superficiality and an entertaining unpredictability. She follows the tweets to the character limit, introducing us to Zola (Taylour Paige) as she crosses paths with Stefani (Riley Keough) on a shift. Stefani is bold, confident and immediately pushes past any boundaries of physical intimacy, let alone waitress-customer etiquette. And before Zola knows it, she’s agreed to join her new friend on a trip to earn some quick cash through some dancing.
But things soon spiral out of control, as Zola ends up under the wing of Stefani’s roommate (Colman Domingo), who has certain ideas of how they might make some additional money. Things veer from strange to sinister, and the fun comes from watching the dynamics turn on a hairpin, whether it’s Keough’s typically charismatic performance that turns free-wheeling carelessness into an almost likeable trait or the always-excellent Colman Domingo shifting from enigmatic to plain nasty in the blink of an eye. Newcomer Taylour Paige navigates the ensuing chaos with a sharp alertness and an instinct for self-preservation that makes her a winning hero – every time the story threatens to get away from her, she grounds it in actual stakes, turning humour (watch out for Nicholas Braun as Stefani’s pathetic boyfriend, Derrek) into a mounting sense of horror.
That balance is what Janizca Bravo gets so right, able to drop in storytelling nuance and details on the fly (even one bathroom trip teaches us how hydrated and sensible Zola is compared to Stefani) while also embracing the messiness of the source material – and shrewdly reminding us that what we’re being told may not be trustworthy at all. Bravo and DoP Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth) serve all this with a graphic intensity that’s unabashedly in-your-face, while editor Joi McMillon and composer Mica Levi make sure that we never quite settle into the deliberately uneven rhythms – the narrative is driven by WhatsApp and Twitter pings more than logic or character.
The result is uneven – more Spring Breakers than Uncut Gems – but it’s a wild ride with a purpose, satirically skewering the performative, shallow and self-promoting nature of social media, while making a serious point about the dangers of exploitation that linger hidden just below the glossy surface of our modern world.