Sundance London 2021 ‘Zola’ Review: Viral Twitter becomes Thrilling Cinema

In 148 tweets, Aziah “Zola” King recounted a shocking story of a stripper’s road trip gone bizarrely and dangerously wrong. Janicza Bravo now realises this viral legend in a truly innovative and absorbing thriller that sees a Detroit waitress (Taylour Paige) sucked into a dark world of sex work, murder and suicide. She’s seduced and threatened into participation by fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough) and pimp “X” (Colman Domingo) respectively. The evening escalates and Zola finds herself a long way away from home.

Much has been made of this attempt to adapt a twitter thread. There’s the danger of the film experiencing the same sniffiness reserved for works based on mediums perceived as disposable or vulgar. There’s also been much made of the original story, aspects of which are known to be untrue or exaggerated. However, what is real and what is unique to social media is that this is a story told by a voice completely unmoderated by the voices that far too often control what stories get told on the big screen. Zola’s voice is an essential and intoxicating element of the story and the film preserves and compliments her voice perfectly. The film depicts a lifestyle that’s most definitely away from the mainstream of society, a seedy world where even self-confident, empowered women are under threat.

The tone of the piece is that of a dark comedy. As the situation becomes more and more tense, Zola’s personality and humour keeps up the pathos and prevents the whole thing becoming too bleak. This is certainly an urgent story about the dangers that face sex workers, but it’s also incredibly entertaining; a shaggy dog story with an edge. Particularly noticeable is the absence of the police. Any mention of calling the authorities is dismissed as the characters know that none of them are safe if the police get involved. A brief sequence sees them driving past a black man being harassed violently by the local force. There’s no protection available for these women, they have to navigate these choppy waters themselves, and each have found their own ways to survive.

At the heart of the film is a three-hander. Taylour Page is fantastic in the title role, she brings the dialogue to convincing life and is a compelling and sympathetic lead who’s attitude and charisma carries her through the worst of her ordeal before she’s countered by the intimidating energy of Colman Domingo’s Abegunde “X” Olawale who manages to deliver a performance both comedic and terrifying. Riley Keough is the enigmatic Stefani who lures Zola into her misadventure and is tragic and mischievous. Her oscillation between victim and coercer is one o f the most dramatic elements of the film.

Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo infuses the chaotic story with an inventive pop spirit that succeeds in weaving the social media origins into the aesthetic of the film. There’s a hazy film grain that relates this back to the sleazy Russ Meyer’s movies that the characters watch in a rare moment of relative peace between catastrophes. The comparison is interesting. Meyer’s films were undeniably exploitative but frequently featured very capable women exacting revenge against men. Similarly Bravo’s camera doesn’t shy away from focusing on her subject’s figures early in the film. Her camera objectifies the women, but as they face increasing peril from men who do the same, Bravo moves into intense closeups of the women’s faces.

Zola might be the most anxious I’ve felt in a cinema since Uncut Gems. It’s a story that grew from a unique voice and an authentic experience (if not a completely true one) that has been given a glossy and filthy makeover without losing the tension at it’s heart. It feels like the movie Showgirls might have been if it had the guts to drop the facetiousness. It’s a black comedy about the dark underbelly of the sex industry, and a provocative tale of female survival in a world of male exploitation. You may not have the nerve to see it twice, but you owe it to yourself to come on this trip.

Five Stars

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