I suspect what happened is this: A studio exec looked at the success, both financial and critical, of 2019’s Hustlers, and went in search of more it-really-happened stories sorta-kinda like it. “Get me something about savvy women who navigate precarious circumstances with feminist gutso!” someone — probably a man — said, probably less eloquently. And someone else — probably a woman, perhaps a Black woman, probably in her own precarious circumstances, like maybe she was a studio intern trying to break into the production side of things — remembered the 2015 tweetstorm by A’Ziah King that went viral, her roller-coaster story of a wild road trip from Detroit to Tampa with a prostitute (whom she did not know at first was a prostitute), the prostitute’s pimp, and the prostitute’s boyfriend.
And, so, herewith: Zola.
I wanted to like this movie, for the same reason that I ended up loving Hustlers: because it gives voice to women, and to women’s experiences, that are underrepresented onscreen, and certainly underrepresented from women’s perspectives. And I was with Zola for a while. Director — and cowriter, with Jeremy O. Harris — Janicza Bravo (Mrs America), with her second feature, deploys a deliciously badass style that is part 70s grindhouse, part verité pseudo-documentary as Zola (Taylour Paige: High School Musical 3: Senior Year) hits the road with her new pal Stefani (Riley Keough: The Lodge, Logan Lucky), nicely capturing the instantaneous lightning that newborn female friendships often zing with. Perhaps more importantly, Bravo never treats her working-class characters with condescension, while also zooming right in on Stefani’s casual racism (Zola is Black; Stefani is white). And Bravo’s low-key eye on the contradictions and hypocrisies of the American South is very welcome. The Florida she sees, through Zola’s eyes, is one of giant Christian crosses on the roadside, and even bigger Confederate flags waving in the humid breeze. It is a land where strippers pray to Jesus — genuinely, sincerely pray — for customers with good credit scores. The detail in Zola is *chef’s kiss.*
Alas… that is only detail. It is only stage setting. The verve with which Bravo sketches Zola’s world soon falls apart. Part of that is because, ah, yes: strippers. Zola is a part-time diner waitress (in real life, King worked at a Hooters), part-time pole dancer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but when it comes to the “exotic dancing” bits, Bravo seems to forget that this story is from Zola’s point of view… and a camera right in her twerking ass — which happens a lot — is most certainly not from her point of view. It’s a huge disappointment to see Zola’s story undermined by an exploitive gaze.
And then there are the intersecting notions that this tale is meant to A) be comedic, if only blackly comedic, yet also B) a way to highlight the very real problem of sex trafficking. See, cuz it turns out that when Stefani invites Zola along for that weekend in Florida, it’s not just for a chance for the women to make some good money from fresh marks at a strip club. No: the guy who turns out be Stefani’s pimp (Colman Domingo: If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma), whose name Zola doesn’t even immediately learn, also expects Zola to prostitute herself. Threats are involved, of the “I know where you live” sort. None of this is funny… but neither does any of it seem quite precautionary, either. Throw in Stefani’s doofusy boyfriend (Nicolas Braun: How to Be Single, Poltergeist) — who later turns out to be rather sweet — and it all comes across as something of a failed caper.
“Caper” might have been the tone this story needed. It never captures that. There’s a hint of failed satire, too, when the perspective shifts to Stefani’s, a detour that never gels into anything cohesive. Aside from the amazing central performances — Keough’s is all-in; Paige’s should be star-making — nothing here works. “You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?” is how Zola introduces it. “It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” Except there’s almost nothing suspenseful about it: every supposed twist is entirely obvious, the sorry desperation of these women is routine, as is the way that men take advantage of them. And at 80 minutes long — not counting the end credits — it’s not very long. (It was long for a tweetstorm.) This is, at least, one saving grace.
It’s all a bit yuck, and barely captures the vibrant voice and energy of King’s tweets. Which is a real shame.