Directed by: Janicza Bravo
Premise: Based on true events. A stripper (Taylour Paige) befriends another dancer (Riley Keough). The two of them take a road trip to dance at a club in Florida but once they arrive things take a darker turn.
What Works: Zola is based on a series of Twitter messages posted in 2015 which was adapted into a Rolling Stone article. The film is a road trip story and the movie succeeds as a character study and a portrait of life at the social margins. The cast make these people into vivid characters. The film is led by Taylour Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as Stefani. The movie hinges upon their relationship. At the start of the story, Zola and Stefani become fast friends and Paige and Keough make their relationship convincing. Once these women get to Florida, circumstances change with Zola effectively trapped with Stefani and her pimp. Taylour Page makes Zola intelligent and assertive but the character is in a dangerous situation and Page plays this well; we can see Zola calculating her options in the subtle details of Page’s performance. Nicholas Braun is cast as Stefani’s vacillating boyfriend and Colman Domingo plays her pimp. Braun is pathetic but eminently watchable and Domingo alternates between cruelty and charm, convincingly us that he could control women with a mix of threats and empty promises. Also impressive are the small supporting roles such as Ts Madison as a religious stripper and Jason Mitchell as a small-time gangster. These supporting characters add a lot of credibility and texture to the movie. That’s another of Zola’s outstanding qualities. The film has a vivid sense of place for its geographical location but also for the subculture of stripping and prostitution. Filmmaker Janicza Bravo shoots the material in ways that draw us into this world and Zola includes playful asides such as narration and intertitles that explain some of the subcultural subtleties. The film is also shot thoughtfully. Bravo and cinematographer Ari Wegner stage the dance scenes in ways that block out the obvious sexual aspects and draw our attention to the social interactions between the dancers and the customers. Zola is also quite funny except when it’s not and the filmmakers show exceptional skill managing the tone. This is an outrageous story and it is told in a style and pitch that’s appropriate to the subject matter.
What Doesn’t: The energy of Zola subsides about halfway through. That’s partly because the film transitions from a crazy road trip story to something more sinister. But the film doesn’t feel as though it’s building toward anything. Zola tries to find a way out of her situation but she doesn’t really find it. The film concludes prematurely. It doesn’t really have an ending. The picture just stops. But without any meaningful conclusion, even an open ended one, what Zola shows us about these people and their lives feels incomplete and inconclusive.
Bottom Line: Zola is an impressive character study. Whatever the movie may be trying to say about social media or the sex industry is mostly superficial but Zola succeeds as a road movie and as a portrait of a subculture.
Episode: #859 (July 11, 2021)