In an era where Hollywood’s unoriginality is so profound that even this lack of imagination has been cannibalised into equally unimaginative parody – see; Space Jam 2 and Ryan Reynolds’s upcoming Free Guy for two examples this year alone – a film based on a Twitter thread may seem like the nadir. Yet, in a truly thrilling surprise, Zola is one of the best movies of 2021 so far, an electrifyingly fast, funny, and bleak drama that mixes the digital age with some ‘70s style and fairytale imagery to plunge you headfirst into a world of social media lies and attempted sex trafficking.
A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King’s massive Tweet thread – opened with the iconic line ‘Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?’ – took the internet by storm as soon as it was posted back in 2015. It told the tale of an ill-fated trip to Florida to make quick money at a Tampa strip club, a trip that went wildly off the rails, ending up taking in pimps, shootouts, white privilege, and a very stupid boyfriend – all in the space of 48 hours. Here, Zola is played by relative newcomer Taylour Paige (incredibly impressive in what is sure to be a breakout performance), roped into this dodgy road trip by the ‘blaccented’ Stefanie (Riley Keough), who takes a shine to Zola after the pair spend a night dancing together.
The pair are Florida for less than an hour before Zola starts to sense some darker motives on the part of Stefanie and her ‘roommate’/pimp Abegunde (Colman Domingo), as they stuff Stefanie’s boyfriend Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) in a grimy motel and the assignment of stripping changes to one of prostitution. It sounds like a grim story on paper, and it certainly is nasty at points, but it’s also incredibly funny and moves at lightning speed, totally gripping throughout.
Director Janicza Bravo knows how to keep your head spinning with consistent surprises, both plot-wise and stylistically. Though we do very occasionally see the world through the eyes of Zola or Stefanie’s phones, Bravo never descends into the cliches you might expect in a social media-based story, instead going for a more throwback style that is at once invitingly immersive and horribly sleazy.
Fantastical imagery and music cues – Mica Levi’s score yet again proving why she’s the absolute best in the business – draw you further into Zola’s high-tempo trance whilst the quick-fire dialogue can leave you scrambling for breath. Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O Harris focus in on the speaking patterns of online discourse – sometimes with helpfully subtitles for older, whiter audience members – making for conversations that can be both alienating and gratingly familiar. You really feel like you’re in the room with these people, and it’s intoxicating and unpleasant – by the time Zola finally breaks free of Tampa, you’re almost as tired as she is.
Barely a scene passes without a laugh or a gasp – or, in the case of a stomach-turning montage of clients’ awful penises, a combination of the two – as the stakes escalate further and further until everyone is in way over their heads. With such a heightened tone, the cast do a fantastic job of keeping their fears and frustrations grounded. Paige’s performance is pretty reactive, but no less compelling for it, while Keough outdoes herself playing not just the character of Stefanie but almost an embodiment of whiteness itself. Meanwhile, Braun of course earns the lion’s share of laughs (it’s a brilliant piece of casting, one of the few actors who can be funny in the mere act of existing) and Domingo is genuinely astonishing.
His Abegunde is mercurial and terrifying, switching on a dime between American and Nigerian accents in a searingly unpredictable, yet often still charming, display. It’s up there with Carrie Coon in The Nest as my favourite bit of acting of the year, and finally shows Domingo at the peak of his potential after quietly but consistently impressing in smaller roles in the past few years.
Bravo has a lot to juggle in Zola, from the pitch-perfect performances to wild action that feels like a mix between The Neon Demon and the work of Sean Baker to commentary on the fraught and exhausting nature of living your life one social media post at a time. As a balancing act, Zola is a magnificent testament to Bravo’s confidence and skill as a filmmaker, and as a comedy thriller, it’s one of the most deliriously fun times you could have at the cinema this year.