Janicza Bravo’s ZOLA is a comedy that acts as an internet folktale. It’s a story based on the Twitter thread turned incredible Rolling Stone article profiling Aziah “Zola” Wells’ road trip to Tampa, Florida with a dancer, her cucked boyfriend, and a pimp. Lurking and bubbling on the service is a troubling truth about human trafficking and how it’s happening pretty much everywhere. It’s the easy scheme of roping young, uneducated women into a life they did not sign up for through little deaths that take away their humanity.
Bravo cushions the blow with humor and levity at many of the film’s turns if that sounds way too heavy.
Zola (Taylor Paige in what should land her A-list status) is on the grind of shift work day in and day out. She works at a lame “breastaurant” and dances on a pole (no shame) to make ends meet with her boyfriend. Unfortunately, Zola begins to trust Stefani (a blessed Riley Keough performance), a fellow dancer who is “taken care of” by a man named X (Colman Domingo). Zola explains that being “taken care of” is code for he’s her pimp. Paige and Bravo give Zola an innate intelligence in her persona, someone who puts up her boundaries, knows how to use her looks and attitude towards her advantage, and has an entrepreneurial spirit.
ZOLA the film and the character are both savvy and trustworthy narrator who guides the audience on the proper way to act in these situations (most of which is just common sense and intuition). What we see unfolding is Stefani’s undoing at the hands of X and her lack of education; it’s regrettable on every level. Sure Keough’s affectations are spot on, and her dynamic with Nicolas Braun as her puppy dog boyfriend would be perfect in a Harmony Korine film. These are the kinds of trashy people we want to rubberneck at in a Maury Povich kind of way, but Bravo humanizes their emotions.
For all of its darkness, ZOLA is an excellent piece of filmmaking capitalizing on a 16mm aesthetic that doesn’t detract from the story at hand. Somehow ZOLA is beautiful, a freeing film full of growth, caution, and humor in a way that feels wholly original. By encapsulating the fringes of youth culture and the intersection of social media with sex, we are gifted a film that says a lot about what America thinks about money, women, the uneducated, and people of color.
Audio Commentary with writer/director Janicza Bravo and Editor Joi McMillon
Yall Wanna Hear a Story: Making Zola
Deleted Scenes with optional Commentary
Rent/Buy: ZOLA is a must-own for contemporary independent collectors. The special features on the disc put the artists’ voices front and center. Plus the film is only 85 minutes and has rewatchability.