Film Review – Zola (2021)

It all began with a tweet. No, not those pesky birds that squawk endlessly on your rooftops, but with Twitter: influencing haven for some, absolute devastation for others but arguably the most prominent social media platform of the 21st century. 140 characters to change the world, to recommend a film or art, to have a quick moan about the world or, in some cases, to chronicle the “Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted“. If you don’t have the platform you might be unaware of the story so let’s quickly fill you in: #TheStory as it was known, was a chronicle of a weekend that was supposed to be about lap-dancing and earning money when in actuality only one of those things turned out to be true. Instead, the events of those three days trekking down to and around Florida would, in many unexpected ways, change Aziah “Zola” King’s life forever more.

“You wanna hear a story about how me and this b**** fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense” announces Zola (Taylour Paige) as the film opens. You better believe it. As Mica Levi‘s twinkling, delightfully magical score settles above it, leading us deceptively to believe in a golden friendship and happily ever afters, she and her soon-to-be new acquaintance Stefani (Riley Keough) appear in front of shimmering lights and their own reflections knowing that what stares back at them will be very different by the film’s end.

Days after meeting, the new dynamic duo – at least, that’s what they seem – head off to the Sunshine State in the hopes of some lucrative work that will help with both their financial hardships. Along for the ride are Stefani’s neurotic mess of a boyfriend, Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun), and her roommate (Colman Domingo) whose identity is kept secret from us and Zola for much longer than is comfortable. But what promised to be a few nights of exclusive dancing turns into something much more sordid and dangerous than Zola signed on for, and the threads begin to unravel very quickly.

From those opening magical notes, Zola demands you to sit up and take notice at its increasing dramatics but also at its inner beauty, something the story tries to amplify. Under the cool, poised but lyrical direction of Janicza Bravo and the hazy, dreamlike visuals from Ari Wegner, Zola‘s profound yet absurd story is brought to life with delicacy and beauty yet, particularly as it sprints towards its final act – even at a lean 86 minutes, it somehow feels rushed – where it loses its momentum and its humour gets muddled in much darker territory. Still, when the funnies get going, there’s some real brilliance to its satirical edge, with the entire ensemble exemplary though it’s the unpredictable, powerful turn from the ever-brilliant Colman Domingo that will catch many unawares.

This is messy, you’re messy” shouts Zola at Stefani in one later exchange. Given the source, maybe that’s the point.

★★★


Comedy, crime | USA, 2020 | 18 | Cinema | 6th August 2021 (UK) | Sony Pictures Releasing | Dir.Janicza Bravo | Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo