#Sundance2020: Zola is style over substance

In 2015, a tweet storm by A’Ziah Zola King, a certain Detroit waitress and exotic dancer, detailing a wild, dangerous weekend in Florida hit the internet and shook Twitter to its core. Coming in at a lengthy 140 plus tweet thread, the saga, later to be known as #TheStory was outrageous and lurid enough to demand not just multiple likes and retweets but a big screen battle for rights.

Featuring strippers, sex work, gun violence and lots of nasty attitude, #TheStory was eventually adapted by the duo of Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo (Lemon) with Bravo stepping up to handle directing duties as well.

The finished product, a stylish, sleazy, and often poetic run through the underbelly of the skin trade premiered in Sundance’s U.S Dramatic Competition. Mixing lowbrow pop culture with some heightened sense of style- think Lynchian weirdness- Bravo’s vision of Zola embraces #TheStory’s freewheeling aesthetic, retaining the narrator’s heightened sense for dramatic flair but also keeping it within check of a ninety-minute film adaptation.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” asks the narrator and titular character in a voiceover at the start of the film. This opener is one of the most interesting scenes in the film. It is set up with the two leads, one black, the other white, fixing their makeup in front of a wall of mirrors.

It is clear immediately that Zola is a tale of fast friendships gone south and trusts betrayed. In some ways Zola’s focus on can-do feminism and finding control on the pole recalls last year’s Hustlers but unlike Lorene Scafaria’s hit, Zola doesn’t particularly have anything profound to say beyond the initial shock of the revelations and the style of the storytelling.

Some would argue that like Hustlers, Zola is an empowering piece of performance art, one that gives at least one of its female leads the power to own her body and use it as she pleases but perhaps more instructively, Zola feels more like a kin to Sean Parker’s The Florida Project, a documentation of the brutalizing effects of poverty and a lack of agency among the underprivileged, mostly women.

Not that Zola goes to any of these heavy places deliberately. Beyond commenting briefly on the outlandishness of social media and bearing witness to the seedy underside of the flesh trade, almost everything else in Zola is played for dark, occasionally uncomfortable laughs. Some of it works, but some do not. The umpteenth American attempt at a Nigerian accent, this time by Colman Domingo who plays the aggressive pimp X is certainly not funny.

From the narration, Zola, the titular character played fearlessly and with a superior gaze of skepticism by newcomer Taylour Paige works as a waitress at a breakfast joint. To make ends meet, she earns on the side as a stripper cum exotic dancer. While taking orders at work, she meets Stefani, the problematic bitch (a terrific Riley Keough) who sizes her up and appeals to her vain side. The two ladies become fast friends and Stefani invites Zola to come along with her on a trip to Florida to pick up more strip action.

As it turns out, Stefani has been quite economical with the truth and Zola finds herself on a wild adventure where she constantly has to resort to her wits and street smarts to maintain her dignity and agency. Most of the film is based on Zola’s recollections and Bravo ordains her film with visual and sound flourishes that make it seem like watching a tweet storm in real time. In a half-hearted attempt at balance, Keough’s culture-appropriating Stefani is given some time to make her own argument and the result is an outlandish, funny and maybe a tad pathetic Reddit post.

Zola’s editing is fast paced and snappy, perhaps in keeping with the short attention span of social media with phone cameras and screen savers contributing to the look and sound of the project. By the end though, the energy flags and Zola abruptly runs out of steam in a most frustrating manner.

Zola is plenty fun, looks fresh, feels fresh but what does it say exactly?

Not much.



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