Why ‘Zola’ is the must-see movie of the summer
There are a lot of ways to describe “Zola”, the shockingly intoxicating, crazy doggy erotic and underground drama with a title that doesn’t tell you much. It’s such an extravagant true story it feels like it had to be made up. It’s a mini volcano of sex, violence, danger and deception. It is a true portrait of the women who work in the sex industry. It’s an earthquake as real as “American Honey”. It’s a piece of pure cinematic bravery.
The film first played at Sundance in 2020 (that’s right, a year and a half ago), and the reason it just released is because it’s one of the few independent films that has been treated by its distributor – in this case, A24 – as a gem designed for the big screen, like “No Time to Die” or “West Side Story”, the release of which should wait until we can begin to see the theatrical landscape post-pandemic. (The other 2020 Sundance thrills, “Promising Young Woman” and “Minari,” hit streaming platforms in time for last year’s Oscar race.) “Zola” hit theaters on the 30th. June, and when you see it, you ‘I’d know why it’s the July 4th wild card of this year. The film, in its heady and original way, is shattering entertainment that’s as American as apple pie. But unlike “F9” or “The Final Purge” or “The Boss Baby: Family Business”, it’s a vacation movie that takes you somewhere you’ve never been. Here is why I invite you to seek it out.
1. It’s a hypnotic walk on the wild side. Most of the publicity for the film has focused on the fact that it is based on a tweetstorm: a chain of 148 messages from A’Ziah “Zola” Wells (now King) that spread across Twitter on October 27, 2015. King told the story of what happened to him in a motivated, sometimes in all caps, existential confession frenzy, and his story went viral because it was a hair-triggering psychodrama delivered in bursts of desperate fury. What the film preserves is the wide-eyed, what-in-the-name-of-god-will-happen-after-? crazy reality of it all, which elevates King’s experience to a sort of odyssey from the diary of an exotic dancer turned film noir. The tone of the film is never less than authentic, but it sweeps you along like a midnight roller coaster. Zola, the center of gravity of the film, played with captivating strength of mind by Taylour Paige, just wants to leave her boyfriend for a few days, get off in Tampa, and make some money dancing. But as the plan unfolds quite spectacularly, audiences find themselves harnessed to a ride of fear, ingenuity, and survival.
2. A star filmmaker is born. The film’s director and co-writer, Janicza Bravo, has worked primarily in television, but she has already directed a feature film (the daring Sundance experimental film “Lemon”), and she infuses “Zola” with the genre of danger and excitement we associate with vintage Scorsese or the Paul Thomas Anderson of “Boogie Nights”. In the foregrounds, Zola and the woman who draws her into the journey, Stefani (Riley Keough), are wearing makeup and gazing into paneled mirrors, but the only sound we hear is playful, innocent harp music that creates a strange, dreamy swelling around them. Already, the characters have a quality of mystery, this is what has escaped our cinema. (You can watch the 25 top-grossing movies of the year and not experience a moment of mystery.) That quality lingers as Bravo digs into these personalities, casting a spell on the way they behave for their clients, each other. behave for each other, and play for those who would be life threatening.
Their faces and bodies are on display, but their souls are hidden and Bravo’s camera hovers in the space around them. She creates one hypnotic sequence after another: the rapid-fire and ambiguous reunion of Zola, who works as a waitress at Hooter’s, and Stefani, both of whom are locked in a mock-love-meet-cute vibe; the descent to Florida in a Jeep Cherokee driven by the imperious X (Colman Domingo), a journey that begins noisy but is shadowed by sinister vibes; the brilliantly edited sequence in a hotel room where Stefani is ordered to turn towers, and Zola – although she has none of that – turns the situation around because only she sees the value (and corruption) of what they sell; the gonzo clash in Dion’s (Jason Mitchell) apartment not as nice as we thought, a scene as loaded as the climax of the firecracker from “Boogie Nights”. Some of “Zola” is scary, others are funny, but Bravo makes every moment so alive that it leaves the audience shivering.
3. Acting is a killer. The first actor that strikes you is Riley Keough as Stefani, whose whole personality is a hip-hop minstrel show. You might think you’ve seen a performance like this before – like, say, what James Franco did in “Spring Breakers” (and, in fact, Franco was at one point directing that movie). But she was a witty lark. Stefani de Keough, with her childish but grotesque devotion to the “street” fantasy in her head, is a performance that is both lighter and more breathtaking – it engraves a whole way of being around an empty soul, transforming Stefani into a weak, treacherous bulb that has no knowledge of itself because it hardly has a self to know. Taylour Paige, as Zola, is the opposite of Stefani, a wary warrior who uses her words sparingly, but as weapons. She is drawn to, but sees through, this white girl who could never be her sister, and Paige acts with eyes that are like moral captors. Nicholas Braun plays Stefani’s boyfriend as an exquisitely oblivious fool, and Colman Domingo, as the hateful, manipulative Chameleon X (who acquires a Jamaican accent when angry), gives the most revealing performance as a pimp since Morgan. Freeman in “Street Smart”. “
4. This is the rare movie that understands the sex industry from the inside out. Are almost all dramas that deal with the sex industry at some level exploitative? You could make this case – not because the movies try to be exploitative, but because when an exotic dancer or prostitute appears onscreen she’s almost always stuck in an invisible box: a standard perception of the way it should be judged, defined, degraded, glorified. “Zola” is so simple that a movie like “Hustlers” sounds like “Nine to Five”, but with the polish gone, we see all of the characters’ vulnerable humanity, and the movie is uncompromising in its presentation of the inner pulse. of sex industry work: its potency and numbness, dominance and anxiety coiled into its nocturnal experience; the damp barter air that hangs over every nook and cranny of a strip club; the grand sordid illusion of feeding a selfie in a sex swamp online for rent. At one point Stefani refers to the photo of herself that she takes as “her,” and that says it all: she’s selling a character that doesn’t exist.
5. Cinema feeds on this transcendent level of bad behavior. For 100 years, people have gone to the movies to see two things: extreme virtue… and the extreme absence of it. Good behavior… and bad behavior. The latter is present in everything from classics of the gangsters of the 30s to the femme fatales of the 40s, passing by all the formidable villains, the anti-heroes of New Hollywood (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “Dog Day Afternoon”) to the morally twisted. from shows by Oliver Stone to pulp fiction by Quentin Tarantino. In recent times, however, it is no exaggeration to say that virtue has taken over. “Zola” reminds you how catharsis it is to spend a film reveling in the misadventures of characters who are not role models for anyone.
6. There is a theme that turns heads. What is “Zola” finally talking about? It is about the wages of sin and the dangers of sex work. It is about friendship and betrayal, money and survival. But what gives the film its resonance is a disarming image of a world we all share now: a world ruled by social media tricks and floating financial desperation. It’s the portrait of a society with a newly degraded digital soul in which everything is commodified, and role-playing has become the coin of the kingdom. No matter how far removed you think you are from these lives, the movie says that inevitably they mirror your life. “Zola”, a sordid knockout of an underground odyssey, is also a vision of something. Call it Hall-of-Mirrors America.