A notorious tweetstorm is now on screen, starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. The film is “Zola” and the director is Janicza Bravo from a script she wrote with the Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”).
What started as a Twitter rant about the erotic underworld caught the heat and went viral because it’s a true story, and because the truth is always more exciting than fiction. Audiences were pushed into a world filled with violence and sex. Mind you, this is not made up: it’s an uncomfortable picture of women who work in the sex industry and, like some of the personality types that work in this trade, the filmmaking is pure bravura.
“Zola” screened in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by a distributor, A24, and opened in theaters, June 30. Although it’s not been talked about yet for the award season, that could change with choosing the right public relations team who would naturally return to the story origin. The movie is centered around a tweetstorm, a chain of 148 messages by A’Ziah “Zola” Wells (now, King) that appeared on Twitter in 2015, in which King shared the story of what was happening to her like she was in a confessional, often screaming her frustration in all caps with the truth of her life, filled with her desperation and fury.
The film version preserves and pushes the crazed reality of a life that most of us will never encounter, pushing into King’s life as an exotic dancer, carrying the viewer along her nail-biting life working around very sleazy folks.
One of the film’s secret weapons is actress Taylour Paige, who wants to leave her boyfriend just for a couple of days and go down to Tampa to make some money dancing. But the plan unravels, and her drive for finances moves to a drive to survive. The film’s director and co-writer, Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”), infuses “Zola” with the kind of psychotic excitement that’s associated with vintage Martin Scorsese but with a modern, feminist touch.
Zola is enticed into making the trip by Stefani (Riley Keough), and the first time we see this duo they are applying their makeup, staring into paneled mirrors with harp music swelling around them. Naturally, the “calm before the storm” is perfectly set, a nod to Bravo’s understanding of how to build characters and tension. These women/girls know how to perform for their clientele and each other, but somehow they’ve missed the wolves in their world, thinking that they were harmless puppies or loyal dogs.
Their bodies are beautiful and displayed for optimum impact but there is something dead in their eyes, like they’ve locked their souls away for safekeeping, with no one knowing the combination to unlock that precious object.
Much like their lives, everything goes fast. Stefani and Zola are both exotic dancers (Zola practices on a pole inside her apartment) but are in need of money—which is supposed to rain on Florida strip club stages. Zola accepts and they go for that ride down to Florida in a Jeep Cherokee driven by X (Colman Domingo). Their journey begins full of braggadocio but it is shaded (if you know where to look) with bad vibrations. In a hotel room, Stefani is ordered to turn tricks, and Zola—who refuses—realizes an opportunity. No spoiler alerts here but, as a suggestion, look close at the showdown inside Dion’s (Jason Mitchell) apartment.
The acting is pitch-perfect and Riley Keough as Stefani, who has a childish fascination with her version of street life, keeps the film moving at an interesting, never-dull pace.
Taylour Paige, as Zola, is that modern warrior, tired but still resourceful, understanding how to use everything she has as a weapon. As an African American woman, she’s been schooled in a very different way than the white girl who could never really be close to her. Nicholas Braun (Stefani’s boyfriend) plays stupid with surprising grace, and Colman Domingo (X), dripping with hate and perpetually manipulative, gives a chilling performance as a modern pimp.
Since “Zola” is based on a true story, the look inside the sex industry is rare. Here we are, witness to the fragility of being human, with characters who have found ways to be “ok” with their life choices. The power dynamic explored is interesting, and it’s fascinating how numbness becomes a necessary coping technique.
Now, to the central theme of “Zola”—what is this dynamic, pulsating film really about? Is it that sex is bad? Is it about how money destroys all friendships? Or is it about all of those things harking back to one of the Bible’s biggest themes, that the wages of sin are death?
Or, is it an understanding that for many people, maybe the people close to you, hidden and unaware, this is the only way, financially, that they can stay afloat? Or maybe, Zola is you or me? The film runs barely 82 minutes; that’s enough time for you to ponder this, inside your head.