Zola (Taylour Paige) is seduced into a weekend of stripping with the promise of quick cash. The trip quickly becomes a sleepless 48-hour odyssey involving a nefarious friend (Riley Keough), her pimp (Colman Domingo) and her idiot boyfriend (Nicholas Braun).
Despite what you think you might have heard about 'Zola', trust that you only know fractions of the story. It goes a little something like this. In 2015, A'Ziah 'Zola' King seeded out a thread of 148 tweets that recounted a frequently funny, wildly unbelievable story that took place over a weekend in Florida that involved sex trafficking, drugs, pitch-black comedy, sex work, an attempted suicide, and a kidnapping. The gas part was the story was (for the most part) more or less as she told it. Fast-forward to 2021 and it's now a movie, probably the first of its kind to be generated out a Twitter thread.
From the very opening beats of 'Zola', we're reminded of this fact. Phones bleep constantly with messages, calls, tweets, and ringtones. Nicholas Braun's character, basically Cousin Greg from 'Succession' but somehow more stupid, stares slack-jawed into his phone and gurgles a laugh every so often. Communication is constant, it seems, but nobody's actually listening. More to the point, the characters themselves are regularly at a distance from director Janicza Brown's camera. We're only dropped in and then taken out of their lives for a period of 48 hours, and when we arrive at the end of 'Zola', are we even sure we know them at all?
The movie is so concerned with moving the story onward, moving from dingy motel to impersonal hotel to gaudy suite to another dingy motel. You're sucked in by the audacity of it all, how fearlessly the story is told by director Janicza Brown and the cast, and how the movie twists and turns as it pleases. The brakes even pump a little to allow a Reddit thread from Riley Keough's character to play out briefly. At all times, something is on screen that is demanding your attention and pulling you in, whether it's the grainy footage, the vibrant performances, or the eclectic music choices on the soundtrack.
Yet, 'Zola' feels ultimately empty and soulless. The characters feel hollow and some of the choices by them boggle the mind. Maybe that's how it went from a thread on Twitter to a movie in cinemas. Either way, it still feels inconsistent, as does the tone of the movie. Sure, there are some diversionary moments where it dips its toe into comedy, but the movie feels way less light than, say, 'Hustlers'. If anything, 'Zola' shares a fleeting commonality with 'Uncut Gems', but without its relentless sense of panic. Here, the cast and the direction works to bring out a sense of unbearable tension in parts. Other times, it gets at the monotony of sex work. Frequently, we see things as Zola does - staring blankly at the utter bullshit transpiring around her and trying to make sense of it all.
'Zola' isn't for everyone, but bold and unique works such as this don't really set out with that in mind. If you can get on board with it, 'Zola' is a fascinating, original, and authentic exercise in storytelling that touches on race, sex work, relationships, social media, and more - all in the space of 90 minutes.