Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This applies equally to the rambunctious “Zola” from A24, now in theaters.
Based on a viral Tweet and judiciously covered by the Rolling Stone article, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner (who also served as an executive producer on the film), “Zola” is a recreation of the frenetic weekend jaunt to Tampa in search of quick money.
Taylour Page (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Ballers”) stars as the eponymous Zola, a rather innocent stripper who isn’t necessarily looking for a good time unless it is in controlled spaces. The film breaks the fourth wall multiple times in its style and theme, which I found to be reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike,” which was based in Tampa.
In her feature directorial debut, writer-director Janicza Bravo tells the story of “Zola” from a first-person perspective when she meets the rambunctious Stefani (Riley Keough) and agrees to take a weekend jaunt down to the seedier parts of Tampa to earn money pole dancing at a variety of strip clubs. Keough plays Stefani to the hilt, a vociferous character whose presence is larger than life. Her energy feeds right into “Zola,” which is, first and foremost, a loud, colorful, and brazen road trip. And I like road trips.
Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, an actor, and an award-winning playwright, start the film under cover of night, a perfect setting for the pole-dancing escapade which unfolds in front of us. Running a lean 87 minutes, Bravo uses every inch of her canvas to carry this escapade about friendship, about working for the money, and ultimately a stand-off over, yup, money.
Joining Paige and Keough on this journey is Stefani’s neurotic boyfriend, Derek, played by Nicholas Braun, and Colman Domingo as X, who we later learn is Stefani’s pimp. I liked Braun’s approach to Derek, who is very innocent in all of these adventures but is so hung up on his neurosis, very nearly approaching desperation for attention, that you can’t help but laugh with the film when he’s on-screen. Domingo is a quiet force to be reckoned with. He isn’t necessarily a father figure nor a bodyguard, but his approach to the character came off as both at some points in the film.
Paige is scintillating as the titular character. She has style, and she has some spunk; however, her conservative nature toward the opposite sex when it comes to quick sex is admirable. She feels for the safety of her pole (dancing), and it comes off as being just as protective as the loose and fancy-free Stefani. There’s a twist in the film that caught me off guard. The twist was a refreshing turn for the story and managed to put Zola in far more danger.
Bravo switches the roles just a bit in the middle of the film, trying to pass Stefani off as a Ms. Goody Two shoes, and it works – Keough is tough when it comes to the business. She’s no-nonsense, but she’s also reckless and dangerous, bringing the group to the attention of Jason Mitchell’s Dion, who befriends Derek.
I didn’t even know about this film until it was on top of its release. “Zola’ premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to wide acclaim. Its offbeat humor and strong storytelling, not to mention its sublime acting, work magic. Something that seems to be in strong supply in sunny Tampa.
Now in theaters, “Zola” is a road trip worth taking.