Zola is not a fun movie, but then the actual details of the viral saga it’s based on aren’t that much fun either. A’Ziah “Zola” King’s 2015 thread about a road trip gone wrong is a litany of betrayal, sex trafficking, gun violence, and attempted suicide. The allure is all in the telling — in King’s brashly funny voice and vivid phrasing, in the deftness with which she divvied up scenes for Twitter, and in her willingness to embellish the truth when her ever-growing audience demanded more. She’s a natural raconteur, a can-you-believe-this-shit observer of the world of chaos she finds herself in when she agrees to accompany a white woman she just met to Florida for what she believes will be a lucrative weekend of dancing in the local strip clubs. What happens is framed as an outrageous yarn, though it could just as readily have been told as a traumatic nightmare, and it’s that gap that fascinates director Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris. Their Zola, played by Taylour Paige, uses her online platform after the fact, to assert agency over a situation in which she found herself with very little. The film is about the power of storytelling, and not in the cornball, self-congratulatory sense in which that phrase is normally deployed.
And you know how the story goes, or at least, if you were online six years ago, you do. Zola meets Stefani (Riley Keough), as the character is called onscreen, while working as a server at a restaurant. Their mutual admiration is instantaneous and as forceful as a romantic attraction — the “Like” heart flashes onscreen as they exchange numbers — and they perform together that night, money raining down on them onstage, before bonding over duplicitous friends and jealous bitches and, in Stefani’s case, a liberal appropriation of AAVE. Bravo uses a dreamlike sequence of the women getting ready side by side in a hall of mirrors as a refrain, and the first time we see it, they’re in perfect sync, two stars glimmering in the light. Like Zola, Stefani does seem to shine brighter than their uninspiring surroundings, and when she texts the next day about driving down to Florida to make money dancing, Zola says yes. She finds herself in a car with Stefani’s noodle-y boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and mysterious roommate, (Colman Domingo), whose name Zola will eventually learn is X. The dynamic is strange, and gets stranger once Derrek gets dropped off at a beat-up Tampa motel for the night, while X drives the women to the club. As King promised online, and as Zola tells the camera at the start of the film, this story is “kind of long but full of suspense.”
A Twitter chirp accompanies that sentence when Zola says it out loud, a periodic reminder of the online tale these events will be digested into. Zola isn’t an unreliable narrator, but she doesn’t find the events nearly as raucous in person as she does in retrospect. Paige spends a fair amount of the film in silence, her watchful eyes testifying to Zola’s growing exasperation and unease as the situation in which she finds herself starts shifting. X, it turns out, is Stefani’s pimp, and all those selfies Stefani insisted on taking with Zola somehow make their way over to a Backpage ad. Zola’s not about to allow herself to be coerced into something she’s unwilling to do, but through a combination of X’s strong-arming and Stefani’s desperate pleas, ends up playing madam and marketer to her new “friend.” The clients become the stuff of a matter-of-fact montage of unbuttoning and undressing, a row of bared chests and flaccid cocks — sex work is work — though the movie allows itself a moment of commentary by scrolling back to salute someone who turns out to be particularly well-endowed.
Those witty touches are fewer and farther between than you might expect, given the raucous tone of the source material. Zola’s a clever exercise, but it’s also an aloof and chilly one, its interest in the monstrousness of its supporting players overwhelming its subject’s own voice, to the point that she dissociates during an especially grim moment. Domingo is terrific as X, a purring menace whose accent tends to slip and abruptly show his Nigerian immigrant roots when he gets worked up. Braun plays Derrek as a version of Cousin Greg without the rich family to glom onto — an embodiment of cuckolded, ineffectual frustration. And as Stefani, Keough twangs along in that perfectly terrible blaccent and an endless parade of pink outfits, a blithe party to her own victimization who weaponizes her tears and blinkingly proclaims her ignorance while selling Zola out. The film has no sympathy for the character, and while it certainly doesn’t owe her any, her dead-eyed complicity makes her a little too easy as a stand-in for the overall perfidy of white women.
It ends with Stefani chirpily declaring her love for Zola as they zip along a skyway, while in King’s account, the woman Stefani is based on is last seen getting hauled off to Vegas to keep working, despite having just been beaten. She’s more troubling without being softer, a figure who won’t be saved from her own debasement, who can only drag others down with her in the name of wanting friendship and help. “Pussy is worth thousands, bitch!” Zola tells Stefani at one point, King’s most pull-quote-worthy line turned into an entreaty for someone to accept, if not their own worth, then that of everyone else. Stefani will, toward the end of the film, get her own moment to play narrator, calling upon racist tropes and claims of piety in a brief, garbled attempt at defending herself. It’s contradictory and ridiculous, though that’s not the main reason it fails to gain traction — she’s simply not as compelling a narrator as Zola is. It’s Zola we want to listen to, and Zola’s perspective to which the audience is aligned, because Zola understands that social media is a leveling agent, and also a place where the best-told yarn will win, even if it means tamping down some trauma in the process.
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