‘Zola’ Review: “Stripper Saga Puts The Experience Over Narrative”
To the layman, Twitter is merely a social media platform. For user @_zolarmoon, it was the opportunity to tell a story. Said story, a rousing 140-tweet stripper saga, became an instant sensation. It was only a matter of time before the story got its own movie. Produced by A24, the resulting film, Zola – stylized as @zola – is as good an adaptation as anyone could hope for.
Zola nails what made the story so appealing. Carrying over her narration from the tweets, Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) is a headstrong, witty waitress who works part-time stripping. Paige carries much of the film’s form by acting as a mostly reliable point-of-view for the audience. She’s the “straight man”, so to speak. Opportunity comes knocking for Zola when the crass tornado of a stripper Stefani (Riley Keough) comes into her restaurant. She offers Zola an opportunity she can’t refuse: taking a “hoe trip” to Tampa to earn upwards of $5000 a night stripping.
After some trepidation, she embarks on the voyage, with Zola’s sad-sack boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and mysterious roommate X (Colman Domingo) along for the ride. What follows is a salacious bit of dark comedy that gets crazier with each incident that occurs. Stefani, Derrek, and X are the stars of the show; supremely unlikable in individual ways but so so watchable all the same. Whether Stefani is pulling the rug out from everyone, Derrek is being played, or X… well, you’ll see… the hijinks are enticing all the way. Early in the film, regarding Stefani, Zola says “from here on out, watch every move this bitch makes”. Take that advice from frame one and pay attention to the quirks of these wonderful characters.
In a way, Zola functions a bit like The Great Gatsby. A passive observer becomes drawn into a world beyond their understanding and comes back down to Earth. However, while The Great Gatsby had layers and layers of subtext, Zola doesn’t have the same ambitions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Up-and-coming director Janicza Bravo is one to watch. She adds flair, though not too much, to the story when she can, with flashy editing and glittery cinematography serving to bring out the unbelievable drama of the famed story.
Ultimately, your mileage on Zola will vary completely from what you expect from it. From those expecting Bravo to use this dirtbag chronicle as a catapult for some wide-reaching points about America or youth, watch American Honey instead. Although there are some late-in-the-game attempts at social commentary, they barely make an impression.
Zola works best as a 1:1 translation of a fantastic story. It starts right in the middle of things, takes you through a wild journey, and then abruptly ends. You may not have a lot to chew on, but you saw a wild story play out. A true one at that. In tweet form or cinema, Zola is a tale you just have to indulge in at some point. –James Preston Poole
Zola is now playing in theaters.