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Zola (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

ZOLA (2020)

Zola

Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo, Ari’el Stachel, Jason Mitchell, Ts Madison, Nelcie Souffrant, Nasir Rahim, Jarquale Stewart, Ben Bladon, Carl Collanus, Tony Demil, Angelo Diaz, Mark Fiedler, Renee Leone, Amelia Rose Monteagudo, Michael Opal, Ernest Emmanuel Peeples and Andrew Romano.

Screenplay by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris.

Directed by Janicza Bravo.

Distributed by A24. 90 minutes. Rated R.

Movies are based on all types of media: books, short stories, novellas, plays, articles, songs, older movies, TV series, video games, graphic novels, cartoons and many more.

To the best of my knowledge, Zola is the first movie that has ever been based on a Twitter thread.

I mean, I guess it is possible to create a movie out of a long tweetstorm (148 entries!) and Zola packs a lot of action into its hour-and-a-half long runtime, but still the whole project just feels a little odd. Sometimes even a good odd, but odd, nonetheless.

Of course, based upon the film’s strange genesis, Zola is much like a Twitter post – short, to the point, flashy, funny, provocative and not exactly deep. It tells its strange little tale of sex work and crime amongst four eccentric losers in seedy modern Florida well enough, but it tends to skim the surface. And its essential moral of female empowerment feels a bit tacked on.

So essentially this true story – or as true as can be believed – is about Zola (Taylour Paige), a black waitress who meets a pretty, white customer named Stefani (Riley Keough) who compliments her breasts, and they bond over pole dancing as both are former strippers. (Well, Stefani is not so former.) The irony – one of many slight ironies – is that Zola fits in to “polite” society better, while Stefani acts like a girl from a rap video.

Out of the blue, Stefani suggests a weekend road trip down to Florida to dance in some strip clubs, make some money and have an adventure. Even though Zola has a job and a boyfriend, she is feeling antsy and decides it may be fun.

Zola realizes she may have made a mistake early on when the next morning Stefani picks her up in a minivan with her goofball boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and a shady older guy named X (Colman Domingo) who Zola quickly ascertains is Stefani’s pimp. When they arrive in Tampa, they dump their bags in a no-tell motel and hurry the women off to a seedy little joint nearby where the only way they can make tips is by doing lap dances (undoubtedly with a little extra) – which Zola refuses to do.

Then, leaving Derrek at the seedy motel, X books a suite in a nicer hotel for Zola and Stefani, where he expects them to service a long line of local johns. Again, Zola refuses to do that kind of work and she ends up stuck in the hotel room watching Stefani. She even figures out that Stefani is undercharging and makes some more money for them.

Now, honestly, the whole time this is happening, I’m wondering why Zola had to be there, why she didn’t just take a bus home. However, for some reason they insist she sticks it out, leading to lots of violence (from X, the johns and some local hoods) and some of the least sexy sex ever committed to film. (I know that was the whole point, but still…)

It brings to life a truly sleazy underworld of Florida, which may be fascinating if it were explored more deeply, but here just seems kind of unrealistic. Not that I’m doubting that crap like this happens, I’m just saying the movie doesn’t quite sell the point.

Like so many films right now, Zola has been on the shelf (or on the pole?) for a while now, originally playing at Sundance in January 2020 before the whole world closed down for a year and a half.

It has many pluses – it’s flashily filmed, it’s funny, it’s periodically exciting. Still, like its Twitter origin, it feels insubstantial, entertaining but not really having all that much to say. Somewhere down the line if you run across Zola playing late night on cable or on a streaming service, it’s worth giving it a look. However, it’s probably not worth going all that far out of your way to track it down.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 30, 2021.

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