Cert – 18, Run-time – 1 hour 26 minutes, Director – Janicza Bravo
Pole dancer Zola (Taylour Paige) finds herself trapped in an increasingly dark and exploitative road trip, after being invited by a relative stranger (Riley Keough).
There’s an air of mistrust around almost everything in Zola. While the Twitter thread based story acknowledges that there’s a fair deal of fiction thrown into the mix, deciding what’s true and what isn’t doesn’t cause this feeling. It’s created by the various characters that central character Zola (Taylour Paige) encounters on her road trip to Florida. Invited by relative stranger Stefani (Riley Keough) after the two discover, while Zola is waiting Riley’s table, that they’re both exotic dancers, there’s a sense of unease as Zola is crammed into a car that feels as if it could be heading anywhere. And often that is the case. Co-writer (with Jeremy O. Harris) and director Janicza Bravo often places the camera as if it’s at the front of the car, barrelling down empty streets in the middle of the night – giving the impression that there truly is no way out once Zola finds herself trapped in an increasingly uncomfortable world. A feeling pushed further by the occasional use of Mica Levi’s haunting score.
After having just signed up to dance she finds herself being sold for sex by Stefani’s nameless pimp (Colman Domingo – often referred to as her roommate). Although often standing aside and refusing to engage in anything, instead seeing Stefani go through everything, there’s a fear that negative repercussions will emerge. There’s a fierce sense of darkness within Domingo’s performance. His character is prone to snapping at any moment, losing his temper and effectively holding the two young women prisoner. He’s the complete opposite of Stefani’s awkward, stammering boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun); a character who himself shows his own fear in the situation that he finds himself inadvertently – yet somehow often excluded from properly being – involved in.
As things progress over the 48 hours that the film covers, in a much shorter 86 minute run-time, they manage to engage you further. Once past the initial deception of a dance trip and the situations become increasingly uncomfortable, and indeed risky, there’s a truly dark world that’s uncovered over time. A slight fear factor for Zola is uncovered, her mistrust is shown to have been true. Even in early scenes when simply conversing with Stefani are there subtle facial twitches and changes within Paige’s performance that hint at her characters’ uncertainty towards her new, sudden alleged friend. It’s certainly as the true intentions and behaviour of Domingo’s exploitative figure are shown that things pick up and rattle along the tracks with a quickened pace, sense of depth and heightened ability to engage.
Playing with fact and fiction you don’t always know what to believe, but that’s a concern for afterwards. For the short, yet effectively used, run-time of the film you’re planted into the world that the characters are thrown into – some off-screen, others on. Everything is allowed to happen freely as you simply witness it all unfolding over time, often the same going for the titular character who often acts as the humorously opinionated narrator for the film. She speaks her mind and it’s clear that this is a film that is replaying in her mind as she tells it – living up to the promise that it’s “full of suspense”, particularly from her point of view. Things snowball into dangerous territory for many of the characters, and looking into the controlling and deceptive side of such scenarios – far from revelling in a sexualised nature, which it doesn’t go near or seem to consider. Once in it seems as if there’s no way out for Zola, and the film that shares her name puts this across, simply contrasting it with an eventually fast-paced, well-flowing hybrid of genres.
Once it seems the main character is trapped in the dark world she has been thrown into, Zola is an effectively tense mix of genres, fact and fiction that captures the spirit in which the story itself is relayed back to the viewer.