Film Review: Zola is an exhilarating crime-comedy about the nature of exploitation; told with striking style and sharp humour

Zola tells the story of the burgeoning relationship and eventual disintegration between Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige), a confident yet downtrodden waitress and part-time stripper and Stefani Jezowski (Riley Keough), an unreserved and blundering stripper. They serendipitously meet one another in the restaurant where Zola works and the two become fast friends through many shared interests.

After a fun night and a thorough chat through the mystique of social media, Stefani proposes a road trip to Tampa, Florida with her enigmatic roommate X (Colman Domingo) and her bashful boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) to earn some fast cash. But little does Zola know is that through the next 48 hours, she will go on a wild ride she will never forget.

The premise of Zola is notable since the story is based on an infamous Twitter thread that went viral in 2015. Despite the numerous reports out there, it is certainly not the first film to do so — the first being Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. However, Zola details an unbelievably true story from the titular character herself that details events that entail gritty crime, prostitution, hijinks – something that can only come from the movies. Does Zola succeed in providing the wild ride it astutely promises?

From the get-go, writer/director Janizca Bravo clearly sets her story with the social media aesthetic intact; meaning that there are accurate sound alerts from the platforms that feature throughout the story, in-your-face imagery that is immediately blunt with its intentions and energetic editing that fit the hyperactive behaviour of the characters.

Considering the compact structure of the story and the brief runtime of eighty-five minutes, Bravo and her team — including playwright turned screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris, editor Joi McMillon, composer Mica Levi and cinematographer Ari Wegner – bring an alluringly glossy sheen that makes the storytelling exhilarating in its pacing and winningly funny with its sharp sense of timing. Jump cuts to accentuate the comedy, clever use of the camera to shift between perspectives and a propulsive score bring forth the concise feel of social media; the techniques all lend thrills, jokes and plot turns with blunt force.

The rhythm of the narrative is haphazard and it puts the audience on edge, making the story unpredictable and suspenseful; even when one is familiar with the source material.  There are moments where Zola narrates the film with instances of commentary that add a lot of levity and even some insight into the mindset of the titular character as well as the world around her. The views on women, crime, greed, lust and race — and how everything is seen as exploitation fodder — are imaginatively well thought out as Bravo balances the seriousness of such themes with humour and style.

Like in a scene where Stefani works into a succession of men after ingenious business sense (and self-reflection) from Zola, leading to a very funny montage of prurience and graphic male nudity. In fact, the self-reflexive feel is so well-timed and utilized, even Stefani joins in with her own intro and point-of-view that satirizes the opening of the film with aplomb.

The conceit of social media even excuses the thin characterizations as it is reflective of the flaws of the system and it is mindful of how it blurs views of human connection; especially as to how Zola and Stefani become friends so quickly and what the characters are really like in face-to-face contact. In fact, social media has become so ingrained in these characters, they would speak in terms (like LOL, meaning laugh out loud) that are normally associated in typed messages and not in spoken conversation.

Even with the characterizations, the actors certainly make their mark with their wonderfully exaggerated performances. Paige is razor-sharp and as Zola as she navigates through the chaos around her with resolve and strong instincts; making the story feel grounded with her presence. Keough is a dynamo as Stefani as she avoids playing her role an annoying caricature with innate charisma; making her brash, free-wheeling attitude an absolute blast to watch.

In the supporting roles, Domingo brings a fun sense of menace and spirit to the role of X that even with the dark nature of the role he is imbued with, he is able to shift between levity and wickedness with adept dexterity. As for Braun, no matter how many beaches and pools Janizca features in the film, nothing is as enjoyably damp as Braun’s performance. He may be saddled with a one-note character like Derrek but he plays that note so well that he is able to transcend its limitations; making his presence hilariously pathetic.

The seemingly slight ending of the film may prove to be unsatisfying to some. In retrospect, when one compares it to the source material, the expressions of speech in a social media platform like Twitter are abbreviated and cover an unbelievably true story as so-called content (leading back to its view on exploitation) to be consumed and Zola takes swipes on that. Especially when it is stated a few times by the characters that the story is a wild ride and the film is exactly that; with scarily few repercussions.

Overall, Zola is an energetically fun ride that has a lot to say about exploitation underneath its hyperactive exterior. To bring such depth to what is a true story with serious subject matter that was told through a series of tweets takes a damn good filmmaker to pull off such a task. Helped by committed performances and an on-point crew, Bravo hits a home run with Zola. Highly recommended.



Zola is now showing in cinemas, courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.