Sundance 2020: Zola, by David Bax
Even if you didn’t read the now famous Twitter thread from 2015 on which Janicza Bravo’s Zola is based, both the movie and the thread start the same way, with Zola (Taylour Paige) asking, in reference to her friend (called Stefani in the movie and played by Riley Keough), “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?” So it’s clear that the newfound friendship at the film’s center is not meant to last. But that doesn’t stop Bravo from framing their chance meeting as the beginning of a kind of budding romance, realizing all the things they have in common and making googoo eyes at each other.
But the honeymoon period doesn’t last. The very next day, Stefani invites Zola to come with her, her boyfriend and her roommate to Florida, where they will work at strip clubs for a weekend and make good money. But Zola soon finds out that Stefani’s roommate is not her roommate, he has more sinister plans for the trip and Stefani may or may not be in on it.
Things get dark and menacing, to be sure, but Zola is also filled with outrageous laughs. Much of the comedy comes from Keough, her ridiculous, impossible to place accent and her motormouth. Just the way she calls Zola “sis” becomes funnier every time. Also hilarious is Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Stefani’s dumb but ultimately sympathetic boyfriend.
Bravo’s previous feature, Lemon, concerned a clueless white man dating a black woman. Here, even though the whiteness of Stefani and Derrek and the blackness of Zola and the “roommate” (played by Colman Domingo and left mysteriously unnamed for most of the movie) is called attention to, it at first seems that racial politics will be largely sidestepped. Until, that is, a provocative sequence in which Stefani tells her side of the story, in which she relies on degrading stereotypes to paint herself as the victim.
While Zola’s story was told on Twitter, Stefani’s counterpart offered her rebuttal on Reddit. Bravo adds Instagram, Boomerang, Dubsmash and probably others I’m not hip to into her pot of influences. Zola is a full story abstracted into moments, like curated social media posts that Zola and others are able to comment on while they’re happening. From singing along to Migos’ “Hannah Montana” in the car to showcasing Zola’s impressive pole dancing skills, the film packages and sells the experience of each sequence until you can’t be sure if Bravo’s using the dancing and, eventually, prostitution elements of the story to comment on internet life or vice versa. Someday, the idea of adapting a Twitter thread into a movie won’t be novel–it may even seem like a step down. But, for now, Zola is a fascinating status update for our time.