It had to happen. We’ve seen movies based on comic books, board games and trading cards. Now comes “Zola,” a darkly comedic crime drama, now playing in theatres, that was inspired by a 148-tweet thread by A’Ziah King a.k.a. @zolarmoon. “You wanna hear a story about why me and this b*tch here fell out?” she writes. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
When we first meet Zola (Taylour Paige) she is a Detroit waitress trying to take an order from Stephani (Riley Keough) and her friend. Stephani is flirty, playfully inappropriate and soon the two bond. Both are exotic dancers, and share a similar world view. The very next day Stephani calls with an offer. She invites Zola on a road trip to Florida to perform at a strip club and make some fast cash.
Needing money, Zola hastily agrees but suspicions are raised when Stephani’s hapless boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and the mysterious X (Colman Domingo) come along for the cross-country drive.
Once in Florida, it becomes clear that Zola is in over her head, the target of a set-up by Stephani and X. It’s going to be a long, dangerous weekend for everyone involved.
“Zola” is much more than a Twitter storm. Director Janicza Bravo (who also co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris) sets a frantic pace, unfurling the story with urgency, humour and clever sound design. The result is a slick look at a gritty story that places us in Zola’s shoes. She made a bad decision to go south with someone she barely knew, but now, like her, we’re caught up as things spin out of hand.
The tour guides for this chaotic trip are Paige and Keough. They take turns stealing scenes, filling the screen with bravura performances.
Paige plays Zola as impetuous but strong, vulnerable but powerful. Zola could have been played as a victim, but Paige flips that script, allowing her character to be in control in an out-of-control situation.
The performance is at odds with Keough’s work. She embraces Stephani’s messiness, playing up the cavalier attitude that masks her character’s pain. It’s a nervy performance, both funny and tragic.
“Zola” is a roller-coaster ride up until its final moments. An abrupt ending leaves many unanswered questions, but until then, it feels like the most in-the-moment 2021 movie to date.