“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
If you were paying attention to what was trending in the Twitterverse back in 2015, you might remember coming across these words. It was the beginning of an odyssey of a tale by “Zola” about a chance encounter that turned into the bad trip of a lifetime with a little female awakening sprinkled in. Supposedly a true story and one truly of its time, it showed us that fact is often stranger and much crazier than fiction. So, of course, it got made into a movie — you don’t make waves like that in the social media world and not get optioned into a film. Thanks to writer/director Janicza Bravo and the captivating storytelling skills of A’Ziah “Zola” King, we get to see this wild journey play out live and in living color on the screen.
Zola (Taylour Paige) is a black waitress working at a restaurant in Detroit when she encounters white girl Stefani (Riley Keough) at one of her tables at work. The two hit it off instantly and embark on a “friendship” that neither will ever forget. Over the course of a couple of days, the two bond over social media, texts, and the fact that they are both exotic dancers. With the promise of some quick fun in the sun and some easy money dancing at a strip club, Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida with her “roommate” (Colman Domingo) and her boyfriend (Nicolas Bruan). The moment she closes the car door, Zola starts to feel that something isn’t quite right. But this is not your average road trip movie. What unfolds over the next 48 hours or so is filled with sex trafficking, abusive pimps, backpage exploits, attempted armed robberies, coming into one’s entrepreneurial and feminine power, and characters and situations so outlandish they’re laughable.
Sometimes the scenes are so over the top that it’s unbelievable and takes the film into the absurd. But props must be given to the entire cast who leaned all the way into this story and their respective roles. Taylour Paige’s Zola is the perfect mix of a young woman who is doing what she has to do for the things she wants while also being a savvy businesswoman who understands the power of her feminine wiles, her limits, and her self-regard. Although she naively lets her guard down with the whirlwind that is Stefani and gets swept up into the seedy underworld of sex trafficking and subjugation, she’s quick on her feet and full of street smarts that keep her from getting swept up in the aftermath. And her deadpan delivery of lines like “they start fucking…it was gross” were hilarious. Paige gives a great observant but active lead performance. There’s also Keough, who plays the stereotype well — simultaneously the naive victim and the conniving pro. The accent and cadence do get a little tedious at times and begin to grate on you.
And then there’s Colman Domingo — one moment he’s suave, cool, and collective, the next he’s flying off the hinges with the accent out of nowhere and everything — he’s downright frightening. His casting was spot one, but then again, he can do no wrong — he totally envelopes every role he takes on, making his characters fully believable and magnetic to watch. Nicholas Braun also brings life to Derrek, Stefani’s hopeless and gullible boyfriend. Sometimes you just feel bad for him. On top of the “all-in” performances, the production design, camera shots, and cinematography were spot on. The performances and look of the film were vibrant and brought the Twitter thread to life just how we pictured it in our minds back in 2015.
Zola is gritty and has a hazy, almost vintage feel, and look to it — sometimes you get a hint of Blaxploitation/Pam Grier vibes. The film has scenes and sequences that are very whimsical (the harp music by composer Mica Levi was a good touch) that give the impression of a lighthearted fairytale, but this story is anything but magical. This is a cautionary tale at its heart — the stuff that urban legends are made of — a story that is an old one — prostitution and luring unsuspecting women into precarious situations that quickly spiral out of control.
There is deception and abuse of trust and taking advantage of the naivety and the want for something exciting and little extra cash. In the end, however, you can’t trust everyone — you’ve gotta keep your head on the swivel and think two steps ahead. All that glitters isn’t gold. But this is a world that many young women currently inhabit. So kudos for Bravo giving the character of Zola (her world and her agency) the dignity and respect she might not otherwise have been afforded in a different film helmed by a different writer/director. Sill, this highly anticipated film falls somewhat short of the mark — it feels as if something is missing — and the ending doesn’t help.