“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?! It’s kinda long but full of suspense””
Have you ever seen a film that feels genetically engineered to piss off the correct people? That’s only a slight appeal of dark-comedy-drama Zola, the latest offering from A24’s sometimes painfully hip stables.
Based on a 144 tweet long thread, Zola weaves the thrilling to the darkly satirical to the bombastic and challenging. In a similar way to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the manner of the film is jutting its chin out. Luckily though, Zola is a much more structurally sound film.
Zola follows the titular Zola, who wrote the thread the film is based upon, and has an executive producer credit on the film, (thankfully). She is a pole dancer. She waitresses. She has a boyfriend. It’s not a particularly glamorous existence, but she seems happy enough in what she does. One morning she meets Stefani, played by Riley Keough, who invites her on a road trip to Florida where there is apparently a place to dance that can bestow riches untold. It’s the stripper version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in a way. Where it goes though could not be predicted and the plot starts to take on more and more sinister tones as it goes on. Leading to some of the most darkly funny sequences of suspense since Fargo or Trainspotting. It works just as well as a Hitchcockian suspense move as it does a riotous black comedy.
This is not the only way in which the tone is unique. A dreamlike tone is created right off the bat in the meeting between Stefani and Zola, they strike such an instant, magnetic chemistry that you almost feel like it’s on the verge of romance. They have such different personalities. Stefani is brash, uncontrolled, unguarded for the most part. Zola is guarded, pragmatic, and strong willed. Yet they seem to have a fascination with each other. Maybe they see versions of themselves that they could be, or sides of themselves they might enjoy bringing out in themselves. Certainly the way Stefani’s story reveals itself it feels like she would certainly like some of the self preservation instinct Zola seems to be so on her toes with.
The performances from Keough and Taylour Paige are both incredibly charismatic. Paige cuts an extraordinary line in looking alienated from the craziness around her. If you’ve ever been in a social situation where drama is happening around you and you feel like you just happen to be there for a social interaction you should not under any circumstances be there for and you just feel so removed, you will see some of yourself in her performance. So many of her best moments epitomise the memetic phrase, “I am just here”. Given the online nature of the film, and how central the internet is to the meta-textual framing, plot, and style of the film, she captures a deeply relatable sense of everything to do with the internet just seeming to happen around you and never to you. Much like the conditions of road rage, on the internet you are the voyeur to the entirety of existence, which is something Paige’s performance captures perfectly. Keough is cutting a fine line in complicated kooky weirdos. Whether she’s giving a bland it-girl much more charisma and character than is maybe on the page in Under The Silver Lake, or empathetic, humanistic portrayals of what some might call ‘white trash’ in American Honey, Keough is always captivating. She’s somewhat treading the line between both here and conveys a complex portrayal of sex work and dependance. She gives vulnerability and she gives fiery rebuttals and it all coalesces into a holistic, fascinating, empathetic character. Keough is perfectly cast and as for Paige, this could and should be a star-making role for her, so expressive and charismatic is her facial expressions.
What this movie does with sound is something to be praised also, and helps construct the dreamlike tone and commentary on the online generation. It shows these two people communicating over text conjuring a symphony of bells and whistles as texts are received and sent. In this way it captures well the romance and peace that can come with the superfluidity of online conversation. These intermingle with voice overs from each character doing the texting reading their texts out loud. Keough’s Stefani’s reading is given a strange sense of cherubic beauty by having to necessarily keep to the slow speaking cadence that matches a speedily written text matched with her character’s specific speaking mannerisms. It makes you trust her and be drawn into the web of conspiracy in this film without realising it in the same way Zola is.
The music is curious in the way it intermingles with the sound. Mica Levi is, frankly, a genius and these are compositions that stand out stylistically from any of her previous work, be they other scores or her work with studio albums. For a start it’s a movement away from the overbearing dense string work that defined her brilliant scores for Under The Skin and Jackie. Here you hear complex synthetic soundscapes, handclaps that’ve been put through an electric sampler, and harps. It comes together to add to the dream-like fascination that defines the early moments of Zola, and gradually gets more collage-like and more about soundscapes as the plot gets murkier and character alliances shift. This is interspersed with trap bangers, a genre I’ve never really gotten, but viewed through how these characters interact with it, you see where the fans are coming from, and that realisation helps you identify with these characters more.
It’s worth noting the other actors in this film very quickly and what they add to the film. Colman Domingo is enigmatic, unpredictable, and threatening in a captivating antagonist’s performance. Nicholas Braun, who most viewers will know immediately from Succession, turns in a very similar performance here but playing a very different kind of character and it really works. You believe in his character in the reality of this story and he conveys a lot of pathos.
It can’t go unremaked that this film takes a really interesting look at two hot button issues today, sex work and technology. The perspective is interesting, in and of as much as that it’s a broadly sympathetic portrait. In terms of sex work, the film is totally non-judgemental of people who engage in sex work, and is only really broadly critical of the structures that exist to exploit sex workers under our current criminalisation of sex work under capitalism. It’s critical of their pimps, it’s critical of the Joes, it’s critical of how due to its criminality, despite them being forced into it, there is no legal recourse. Through this lens, without ever saying so, it is treating sex work as a labor issue, and its criminalisation as to do with labor rights, which it should be. We would probably see more success arguing for the rights and legal status of sex work if we did argue it as a labor issue more than we already do. The inclusion of technology in fact enables the sex workers in the film to realise how much they’re being stiffed by their bosses and cut out of the cycle of profit. In fact there is a direct scene of the workers seizing the means of production and using technology to run the industry better. It’s just a sly little wink there to pick up on if you’re looking out for it. It also, through this, shows the beneficial potential for technology to advance labor rights and awareness of our own potential, which is interesting. It shows the pitfalls of technology also, it must be said, social media especially. The film shows social media contact, though, something widely derided in media, as something inherently beautiful, and it renders relationships forged on social media as something special, which I really appreciate.
Zola stands out in the director’s canon. Janicza Bravo’s last movie, Lemon, has been broadly read as a very dry satire of white privilege and culture. It’s seen comparisons to the work of Alex Ross Perry, among others. Zola is completely different, full of life, full of verve, full of energy, and character, and vibrancy. It depicts its characters, who society at large would rather ignore, as deserving of their full humanity. It does for the online generation what Trainspotting did for millennials or what Mean Streets did for Gen X, and y’know, it’s kind of in that echelon of quality in this reviewer’s opinion.
I can’t wait to see what Bravo does next.