Based on a series of tweets chronicling how “me and this bitch here fell out,” Zola lacks the stylistic craftsmanship that could have made this strange story crackle and pop. It plays out as if you are just reading the Twitter thread that inspired it, and it sadly works better on paper, where your imagination is able to do all the heavy lifting. There is one truly great performance here (The Lodge’s Riley Keough as trashy Stefani), so it is a shame that Zola doesn’t have more metaphorical meat on its bones.
As far as the plot is concerned, Zola (Taylour Paige) meets “this white bitch at my job” while waiting her table at Hooters—the “bitch” in question is Stefani (Keough), who vibes immediately with Zola. The very next day, Stefani invites her to Tampa to dance with her at strip clubs on a “hoe trip”; she promises it will be very lucrative. Stefani’s white boy boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun), whose life ambition is to make prank videos, and Stefani’s mysterious roommate/driver X (Colman Domingo), come along for the ride, but all is not as innocent as it appears. Dancing is not the only item on the agenda once they reach their destination. Enter: sex trafficking, gunshots, and gangbangs… one could say that Zola and Stefani’s well-meaning road trip hits quite a few snags along the way.
I think one’s enjoyment will stem on how much you either like or relate to the two lead characters. Personally, I found them to both be completely vacuous, unlikeable, and insipid. There are no characters arcs or progression, so you take what you get. If you can’t get behind the leads, it becomes difficult to get invested in each facet of their journey. I liked the chemistry between Riley Keough and Taylour Paige, but Stefani and Zola are too one-note and simplistic.
The pace gets laboriously slow at times when they travel from one place to the next, and quotable dialogue struggles to hide the emptiness of the story. In particular, the beginning I found very difficult to penetrate, considering the choice to read texts out loud as if they were an actual conversation. This element was bordering on unwatchable for me, instantly putting me in a sour mood. Thankfully, Zola improves significantly after that initial setup. Dialogue like “your titties like apples” remains funny, if forgettable. I will take forgettable over unwatchable any day of the week.
Nothing here stuck out to me as feeling particularly singular or original, doing little to deviate from movies we have seen before. Hustlers, which shares some thematic similarities, is not my favorite movie or anything, but there is a lot more weight to that story and those characters than anything in Zola. What may have worked as a thread feels a bit barebones on camera. While there are some pretty shots (an overhead camera angle of Zola and Stefani in the toilets made me laugh, and the neons are frequently beautiful to behold), narratively, Zola is bankrupt.
As far as some things I liked, a montage set in a hotel is jarring and clever. An introductory scene where the only sound is two basketball kids bouncing their ball up and down is a nice reprieve from the monotony of the droning conversations. It was funny to me going from seeing Colman Domingo playing a pastor in The God Committee to X, a character bordering on deranged. The actor does a great job with limited material. I think director Janicza Bravo does a serviceable job, and certainly establishes a subset of culture that often goes overlooked. If only these characters were more than terrible human beings.
One thing is for sure: you will either love Zola or hate it, and I doubt anyone will fall in the middle. Clearly people will have vastly different opinions, as this was one of my editor’s favorite movies of the year. I found it to lack energy and pace, and it remains too committed to the structural integrity of a series of tweets instead of imbuing qualities that would make for an engaging and satisfying viewing experience.
Zola tweets up a storm when it hits theaters on June 30th, from indie darling A24.