In 2015, a Detroit stripper posted 148 tweets that went viral. The tweets told the story of a trip to Florida meant to score big dollars in stripping, but wound up a comic nightmare of pimps, dirty old men, and gun shots.
Zola, co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo, is a taut, bonkers account of those tweets, tweets that were, in fact, dramatically embellished from actual events. Still, much of what happens in this movie happened in real life, and it acts as a precautionary tale. Simply stated: If somebody, after just meeting you on your waitressing shift, suggests you tag along on a journey to make a lot of money stripping, your best option would be to politely say no and head on home.
Taylour Paige, in a breakout performance, plays Zola, a waitress who occasionally strips for extra money. She meets Stefani (Riley Keough burning up the screen, as usual) and a quick flirtation commences. Before she knows it, Zola is on her way to Tampa with Stefani, her boyfriend Derrek (a raw and ridiculous Nicholas Braun) and a mysterious man called X (a sinister Colman Domingo).
Things go from bad (cheap motel, sleazy strip joint) to worse (markedly better motel, but lots of gross men paying for and demanding sex) in the course of the first day. Turns out Stefani is a part time prostitute, X is her pimp, and Zola has been hijacked into a progressively sketchy situation.
Paige and Keough make a very nasty story completely watchable. Keough goes for something straight up annoying and succeeds, giving us a frighteningly conniving yet clueless Stefani, complete with a culturally appropriated “blaccent.” Keough is so damned good at what she does that she somehow keeps the dangerous Stefani likeable, even as the world spirals out of control due to her lies and actions.
As Zola, Paige gives the movie a calm center, a person dumb enough to get into such a bombastic situation, yet resourceful enough to navigate it, as if she’s been through some major shit before.
In what stands as one of the year’s best performances so far, Domingo gets the role of his lifetime as X, an at first smiley host who goes full-blown nasty badassed pimp when Zola threatens to end their trip early.
Bravo’s approach sometimes feels like a Twitter feed (complete with that whistle notification alert). Zola befriends the sketchy Stefani quickly, much like accepting somebody into a Facebook feed. The twist here is that the instant invitation into Zola’s world brings true horror rather than a glimpse into what Stefani had to eat that day or pictures of her cat.
The movie is funny in an uncomfortable way that befits the subject matter. If you’ve seen Bravo’s Lemon, you know she is at home with uncomfortable humor. Most of the laughs come from Braun’s clueless ramblings as the boyfriend who has not one ounce of control over the direction of his and his girlfriend’s lives. Bravo’s film goes to some very dark places. A sex montage involving some shady men is not for the squeamish, and a hotel scene towards film’s end goes to creepy extremes. In short, don’t take the kids to this one.
James Franco was originally set to direct and star but removed himself from the project after his sexual misconduct allegations came to light. It’s probably a good thing. While Franco managed to make a good movie with The Disaster Artist, his vision wasn’t the right one for this subject matter. Bravo approaches the material in a very matter-of-fact manner that provides a kinetic energy for just short of 90 minutes. Nothing self-indulgent about the movie. If Franco had done the movie, it probably would’ve had a stupid Spring Breakers (the most overrated movie of the last 10 years) vibe.
The film’s weekend trip packs a lot into those less than 90 minutes, and when Zola calls it a day, we’re ready to call it a day with her. It lets off the gas at just the right point. The movie marks major progressions in the careers of Keough, Paige, Braun and Domingo. It’s also further proof that Bravo has a unique vision behind the camera and is a director on the rise.