There's nothing more surreal than real life. In fact, sometimes it feels like watching fireworks in slow motion. I often wonder sometimes out of random curiosity if I were to walk into a biker bar, conjure up a conversation about EASY RIDER with some dudes, had some sharp thoughts and laughter to share, drank some Shirley Temples, and all of a sudden had the inexplicable urge to go for a motorcycle ride with a complete stranger all the way to Florida, I too would have an exhilarating adventure to tell just like in Janicza Bravo's ZOLA?
ZOLA is an experience originating from an onslaught of 148 tweets, a Twitter thread that went viral in 2015, and magically was adapted into a film. It’s unconventional storytelling but also totally an A24 distributed film that will captivate your attention for an hour and twenty-six minutes. It worked for me. I was dazzled and tickled that it was shot on actual film. That's always a delight to feel and see when watching movies. But, ZOLA, is a story permeating of disaster with its chapped lips, flaking off dead pieces of skin in the Florida heat where road tripping, making money, stripping, and oh sex trafficking make the sweat stick to the back of your neck like wet toilet paper on the ceiling, heavy, gross, all while wondering when will gravity take it’s cue.
The genesis of ZOLA comes from the real AZiah "Zola" King, (played by Taylor Paige) a Detroit waitress who meets a fellow female dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough) at the restaurant, where the two are instant besties, and take a weekend trip to Tampa to make money doing a stripping gig. Things escalate pretty quickly from there. All seems fine and dandy when you take a road trip only to find out Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her “roommate” (Colman Domingo) a man’s name we don’t learn or fully understand until later on are also tagging along on this girls’ trip. So they get to Tampa, check into a shitty motel, leave Derrick there like a dusty piece of luggage, while the other three get to the club, and the girls begin stripping. They have a so so night, didn’t make a whole lot of dough. They get back into the car and presumably are heading back to the shit stain motel, but little did Zola know that was not going to happen. You see Stefani’s “roommate” is like NO, hold up this is the 411, telling the girls, they are going to be trapping, which I learned is slang for having sex for money. The expression on Zola’s face is priceless. She ain’t having it, none of it. But the “roommate” aka pimp at this point in time goes full on pit bull on her with this wild Caribbean-like accent, basically threatening her if she refuses. She goes mute and refrains from fleeing the vehicle because she’s in survival mode now, strategizing an exit plan. Yep shit just got real, for real. Everything spirals from here. This is why Stefani and Zola had a falling out, which at this point is contrasted when each of them illustrate their versions of this wild tale painting each other as the bad guy. The sequence that portrays the parallel to each of their perspectives is hilarious. But ultimately, Stefani is a foul-awful, trashy, weasel who uses Zola’s sympathy to keep her where she wants her. Zola eventually learns Stefani has done this before with many other women and she’s hella pissed, but also kind of feels sorry for her given she’s being degraded and pretty much abused by her pimp. Woof! So much drama and problems, escalating to more shitty decisions that gives very little room for safety. It gets worse, when the girls head to another hotel, Stefani is thrown into the room with the door slamming behind her, Zola flees for help. Zola gets the pimp, who returns with a gun with Derrick in toe, shots are fired, people are shot, they save Stefani, the group flees to the pimp’s intimidatingly scary fiancé’s house where they all lay low, Derrick has a mental break, attempts suicide, and everyone leaves the weekend exhausted, traumatized, dumbfounded, and scarred for life. It’s a hell of a hoot.
By the end it's revealed to the audience the pimp known as “X” is wanted for murder and is a well known sex trafficker. Yikes! Stefani eventually leaves, ending up living at home away from the madness, not exactly sure what happens to Derrick, X is in prison, and Zola totally made a movie from all of this insanity.
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, ZOLA is the greatest stripper story ever told. It’s a viral odyssey of sorts bringing together the sex worker and pimp relationship into the 21st century because there’s wifi and Backstage websites for people looking to pay for sex. The story nose dives into it while luring in a particular outsider with a gun with an anxious boyfriend in toe, who essentially loses his mind by nearly killing himself. It’s a hot mess, but the execution into making the film entertaining is effective, wildly so because it hooks the audience into wondering what the hell is going to happen to this circus of characters.
From an acting standpoint Riley Keough is fairly convincing in terms of gaining Zola’s sympathy, but other than that her demeanor is phony, outlandish, over the top with slang that just feels uncomfortable to utter. The actress who played Zola (Taylor Paige) on the other hand, is amazing and also went to great lengths to really get inside the role she was playing by actually dancing at a strip club prior to filming. Who girl, respect and major props. Watching women use their core as they circle around a stripper pole looks taxing and for someone like me with zero to no upper arm strength, I’d fall flat on my bootie. Zola finds a way to divert such a debacle by using her storytelling skills to sweat out the trauma into entertainment.