Sundance Film Festival: Zola Review

“Word.”

It’s incredible how much actress Taylour Paige emotionally conveys with just one word. Or one look. Or a profoundly funny, Scorsese-like narration beat that cuts through the surreal awkwardness and tension of its ‘shady AF’ scenarios. And it’s so brilliantly portrayed, that’s just a slice of what Zola offers.

There’s a fascinating conversation that director Janicza Bravo has about social media. It’s not just relating to its addictive dominance, the endless consummation of information by its consumers or its ability to turn anyone into an instant viral star. Zola (based on the true story of A’Ziah “Zola” King) represents the modern age of storytelling. With the tools provided, there is the enablement of power, a power that stems away from the traditional pathways of expressing your story. Away from sending a spec script and treatment to a Hollywood exec or commissioner where it lays in someone’s inbox gathering digital dust. Away from the endless rejections and gatekeeping mentality on who controls the narrative and how it is told. And away from sanitised or ‘watered down’ realities where it heavily exhausts from that familiarised book on tropes, cliches and stereotypes. A reminder – A’Ziah’s epic 148 tweetstorm was before Twitter stories became threaded. Before social media turned into a troll cesspool of hot takes, conspiracy theories and binary validations. They were told in bitesize doses of hilarity and unapologetic drama as you waited for each tweet to be posted. It’s almost too incredible, but the definitive takeaway is ownership of the story. 

When you read through the original tweets, it’s like reading a novel. You imagine the vividness as if someone switched on that film projector in your mind and screened it before your eyes. While A’Ziah’s story made her a viral star (thanks to the re-tweets of Ava DuVernay and Missy Elliot), to write in the fashion she did is a gift. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that a film based on this dynamic would eventually get turned into a movie. Why? Because the fundamental core to any story is the journey – how it builds its characters, the stakes raised and the audience’s emotional investment towards it all. It’s hard to say whether this will become a future trend, where Hollywood crawls through the depths of social media for that next outrageous and wild adventure. But in A’Ziah’s story, not only does she provides the ready-made screenplay but sets the bar very high.

You wanna hear a story how me and this bitch fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” – Zola

Zola could easily have been a gimmick – a social experiment of the digital age that fails to live up to the expectations, but the skill of Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris prevents it from doing so.

To further elaborate on the undertones of social media, Bravo and O. Harris heavily borrow the iconography of the platform and our engagement towards it. The occasional flashes of the Apple lock screen. The opening and closing of the camera shutter. That instant ‘like button’ gratification showing the world ‘we’re living our best lives’. But you almost have to think of Zola as a fantastical nightmare, transported not to the land of Oz where Dorothy’s cause to return home is aided by a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion. Think of this as a GPS diversion onto the yellow brick road to hell. Where its opening scene feels like you’ve stepped through a magical portal. Where “safe travels” painted on a road exit of a skank motel is laced with subliminal irony. Where kids playing basketball can sound like a ticking time bomb towards inevitable chaos. Where Bravo channels that 70s Grindhouse texture, every frame grained as if it was living for that Instagram life. There’s an undercurrent that questions our dependence on social media and the amplified darkness that follows it in the access it grants. So, it’s not surprising when every soundboard Twitter notification – a direct reference to A’Ziah’s real-life tweet – is queued up like a habitual red flag. And such emotional frequency only adds to the severe dread it builds.

Photo by Courtesy of A24 Films – © A24 Films

A lot of that has to do with Mica Levi’s impeccable score, which drifts between the madness and the unease with a merging mix of surreal fantasy and this 80s-inspired synth edge. But the majority hinges on its incredible plot – a stripper befriending a customer – Stefani (Riley Keough), who she meets whilst waitressing. They quickly become friends until Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida. It was supposed to be simple – two ladies ‘making that shmoney’ dancing at the nightclubs for a big fee. But with the tag-along company of Stefani’s bi-polar boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate”, codenamed X (Colman Domingo), everything goes south real quick.

Bravo presents this as a complicated tonic of characters simmering in a Floridian melting pot who are about to be pushed beyond their limits. Zola – as our guide to this madness – is slapped right in the middle of the story. And Bravo has to juggle with those wild swings it endures (which she manages to pull off).

The cinematic confidence Bravo brings is the acknowledgement that Zola’s story is unique, taking advantage of the generational moment it has come to symbolise. This cautionary tale is a no-holds-barred, full-frontal experience. The characters are presented ‘as is’, – just like how you would scroll on a Twitter timeline and land in the middle of a conversation. Any non-existent depth just adds to the self-contained mystique, knowing there’s more beneath the surface (to which Zola is only privy to in dissecting the information she witnesses).

When the film’s propulsive remit is to ‘let chaos reign’, its dark humour is what sets it apart. It places its audience in a conflicted position, one where you’re shockingly immersed in the mess (which throws your mindset into a constant spin of disbelief) and the other where A’Ziah’s tweetstorm is filled with wit and poise, deftly executed for the big screen. It’s downright poetic when something like “He’s lost in the sauce, and this bitch lost in the game!” is so genuine in its conviction and refreshingly honest. And that energy is frequently channelled throughout Bravo’s film.

But it’s when the laughter stops, Zola ultimately becomes a harrowing tale highlighting the vulnerable plights faced by women. It’s a seedy, dark underbelly where men exploit for profit and threaten for obedience and where women can rope other women into its manipulative and patriarchal game. People can doubt the validity or legitimacy of Zola’s story as much as they want. Such is the nature of social media, there’s nothing to stop stories from being heightened or embellished. But the point of view here is an inescapable truth from an area of society often disregarded. And that reality is hard to deny.

Its depiction encapsulates the three U’s – unrelenting, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Films such as Promising Young Woman and shows like The Handmaid’s Tale highlight the multiple dangers, threats, and sexual perversions towards women, but rarely view that lens from a person of colour.

Photo by Courtesy of A24 Films – © A24 Films

Zola is willing to have a conversation about complicity and whiteness – the kind where the film can break the fourth wall and Stefani can paint herself as a ‘victim’ because of her Christianity. She was led astray by a trashy Black woman (in which Taylour Paige’s Zola is literally walking out of her home dressed in bin bags) who involved her in sinful acts, which is a character assassination of her good name. 

I’ve been recently watching Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, and as much as the series is about the cycle of Black trauma in slavery (without the exploitative torture porn found in Antebellum or Amazon Prime’s Them), but each episodic tale is also a list of excuses by its white characters to justify their cruelty. And one of those reasons is religion – an immunity card that absolves them of any responsibility or accountability. Bringing it back to Zola, it becomes one of the many dialogues (along with somehow all Black people looking the same), where Stefani is happy to be on-brand with Black culture when it suits her, right down to the music, the plaits in her hair, to her culturally appropriated attitude and vibe. But as soon as something goes wrong or the power shifts beyond her control – it’s the Black woman’s fault.

The vulnerability exposed is completely poignant when Zola builds up to its dramatic conclusion. When X tells Zola about her responsibility of looking out for Stefani, she flips it back to him – who’s looking out for me? The truth is, no-one – no-one cares about our sufferings, abuses, trauma, or the psychological damages inflicted, especially when it threatens the paradigm order which accepts our servitude with ease and devalues our respect at the same time. And it speaks volumes when a real-world plight faced by Black women is at the bottom of society’s concerns.

That fear, that awkwardness, that deadpan beat drop, the ability to hold her own yet translate the traumatic fears that Black women can empathise with – only adds to the brilliance of Paige’s performance, who completely nails down Zola’s architectural satire and tone. The performance, where the audience is invited into her world, deliberately contrasts, and complements Keough’s brilliantly played offbeat shadiness. And without judgement or prejudice, it’s a visceral picture of survival, doing what’s possible to stay alive.

That’s backed by Colman Domingo’s performance, whose smooth dulcet tones (a staple of his natural charisma) can be turned so easily into an intimidating, manic and extremely volatile character. The power he exerts over Stefani plays into the perception game that Bravo and O. Harris ultimately weaves into Zola’s story. How people pretend to showcase themselves is only a filter to the truth they desperately want to keep hidden. Without this energetic cast living up to the eccentricities of their characters, it wouldn’t have worked. 

Only its ending is the film’s shortcoming, feeling unfinished. That’s not to say I was expecting some feel-good catharsis. If you’re looking for that, there’s none to be found. But for those who are aware of the original tweets will know there is more to the story. Zola the film takes the decisions where it leaves its movie open-ended, without a resolution (however unclean that may be), leaving more questions than answers.

But take nothing away from Zola or its artistic craft. Not every story can translate in the manner Zola does, and Bravo’s film proves to be an unapologetic wild ride that’s willing to delve into the dark quarters of society.

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