“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Those words, attached to four selfies of herself with a white blonde woman, were posted on Twitter by Aziah “Zola” King in October 2015, kicking off a thread of 148 tweets detailing a road trip to Tampa, Florida gone horribly wrong. Featuring everything from gunfights, prostitution, abduction, and attempted suicide, Zola’s story contained all the makings of an entertaining movie. And director Janicza Bravo, who wrote the film with Jeremy O. Harris, has done just that with “Zola,” capturing the surreal, seedy underbelly of stripping and sex trafficking with a dark sense of humor. At the same time, it is that comedic tone that leaves something to be desired by the time we reach the end of this trip.
Taylour Paige stars as Zola, a Detroit waitress and stripper who one day waits on a woman named Stefani (Riley Keough) at her restaurant. Stefani is crass, but there’s an immediate connection between the pair, one that Bravo indicates when Stefani, also a stripper, invites Zola to go dancing with her. The two women face each other and as they stand in the restaurant kitchen, the world around them fades away, and Mica Levi’s light, twinkling score kicks in. When they are later texting back and forth, Zola is focused solely on her phone, and has a sort of awed, love-struck look on her face that not even her boyfriend Sean (Ari’el Stachel) can pull her away from. So it perhaps isn’t that much of a surprise that when Stefani (who, keep in mind, Zola just met a couple days ago) proposes that Zola join her, her boyfriend, and her roommate on a road trip to go dance in Florida, promising her that she will be able to make lots of money there, Zola accepts.
We get our first sense that Stefani isn’t being up front with Zola during this conversation, however. Zola has to press Stefani for more information on who is going on the trip, information that Stefani doesn’t give her right away. It turns out that her boyfriend, Derreck (Nicholas Braun), is an awkward guy who is devoted to Stefani but doesn’t like what she’s up to, and her “roommate” (Colman Domingo, credited as “X” because, as Zola narrates, it’s a full 48 hours before she actually learns his name) is actually her pimp.
Paige delivers a really wonderful performance as Zola, embodying both the voice of the real Zola’s original tweets, but with every look of disdain and every disbelieving reaction to the craziness going on around her, turning her into the one “normal” person in the story, the one that the audience can relate to. And yet, she can’t extricate herself from the situation she’s gotten in to. Partially, that’s because she’s clearly nervous for her life; X picked her up from her house, so he knows where she and her boyfriend live. But she also keeps getting drawn into Stefani’s orbit, just as she did the first moment she met her. When she discovers that X posted some pictures that she and Stefani took earlier in the evening in a Backpage ad, Zola is appalled and wants nothing to do with it. But she is equally appalled when she finds out how little X is selling Stefani for, and helps her set up a new ad charging a much higher price. Keough turns in a performance that, from her accent to her mannerisms, is so trashy, so unlikeable, it’s sort of brilliant. It’s obvious to the audience from the outset that she is manipulative—to Zola, to Derreck—but it’s also apparent why it works. She’s upfront and seemingly nonplussed about almost everything. The one time she appears to almost genuinely crack is when she meekly asks X if she can keep some of the money she made him the night before, to which he responds that she has clothes on her back and a place to sleep, and that should be good enough. Stefani doesn’t pursue the issue further. Domingo (who is having an incredible year) is a blast to watch. He makes X so completely wild and unpredictable, the most nerve-wracking scenes in the movie are the ones in which we aren’t completely sure what he’s going to do next.
Having someone like Bravo behind the camera and this story told from the female protagonist’s perspective is essential to setting it apart from most other stripper sagas (not unlike one of my favorite movies of 2019, “Hustlers”). There is nothing glamorous about their life. Their motel is nasty. The club is sparsely populated, and when a white man finally tips Zola, he tells her she “looks just like Whoopi Goldberg.” X brings the girls to a nicer hotel to do business in for the remainder of the evening, but those scenes—particularly a montage of Stefani’s encounters with various men—are even more skin-crawling. Bravo’s camera doesn’t objectify the women, and it definitely doesn’t flatter the men. And the role that social media and the internet plays in all of this is prevalent throughout, whether it’s some small detail like the Twitter notification sounds inserted frequently into the movie, or something bigger, like the role that appearances play in selling yourself online.
As uncomfortable as parts of “Zola” may be, it’s so bizarre that you can’t help but laugh. With the film, Bravo is able to embellish the story with audio and visual moments that enhance its surreal nature. X shifting into a Nigerian accent when he’s angry. A little person wearing a tuxedo sitting by the pool as the group sprints from a hotel room waving guns in the air. X’s fiancée (Sophie Hall) who is also apparently sometimes his bodyguard (“you know I’d kill for you, right,” she murmurs to him at one point). It’s somehow both too strange to be true, and too strange not to be made up. The real Zola has admitted to embellishing parts of her story for entertainment value, and it’s clear if you’ve read her tweets and the Rolling Stone profile that this movie is partially based on that Bravo and Harris have further altered some things. Even though an amusing but too brief segment late in the film attempts to tell some things from Stefani’s perspective, all parties involved have admitted that the gist of Zola’s account is accurate.
It’s the anti-climactic and abrupt ending that puts a damper on “Zola.” Harris has stated in an interview with Insider that this was to illustrate the finality of Zola and Stefani’s relationship; when Stefani sweetly tells Zola that she loves her, Zola’s only response is to stare at her in disgust. But this interaction doesn’t necessarily indicate an ending. In fact, Zola and Stefani have had back-and-forths like this throughout the film. If anything, this could just be the beginning of an endless cycle of Stefani pulling Zola back into her world, or X refusing to let her go. The ending also leaves off what ultimately happened to these characters. Not long after the events of “Zola,” X (in real life named Rudy) and Stefani (really named Jessica) tried to coerce two young women into trapping for them, under the pretense of helping them when their car broke down a few hours outside Reno, Nevada. Rudy was ultimately arrested on multiple charges including assault and trafficking when one of them got away and called the police. There’s a very serious issue here that is at odds with the movie’s comedic tone, one that the film doesn’t really address on a larger scale, or even just on the scale of Stefani, who says she is doing this to make money for her young daughter, although we never learn much more about her and her relationship to X beyond that. Upon reflection it makes the film feel more superficial than it should, but maybe it isn’t this film’s job to tackle that. Zola herself said in David Kushner’s 2015 Rolling Stone profile, “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it because it was entertaining.” Maybe that’s about the most we can expect from a movie based on a social media post. And with Bravo’s excellent direction driving the story and a talented cast along for the ride, “Zola” is certainly entertaining.
“Zola” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 86 minutes. Rated R.