Sundance 2020 – Zola

Based on a viral thread of tweets from 2015, Zola follows a wild and dark weekend between two strippers – Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) – who take a trip to Florida to do some dancing. The less you know going in, the better. I was glad to have forgotten a lot about the original tweet thread, this movie rewards you having little knowledge of what transpires. I don’t think there’s been another film based on a series of tweets, but if this is to become a new subgenre, it’s off to a great start. 

The direction by Janicza Bravo is remarkable. She frames the work as a sort of fairy tale gone wrong, casting us into a dreamlike state when Zola and Stefani meet and immediately click. Bravo and cinematographer Ari Wegner create this strange and alluring mixture of new americana, Michael Mann and a fever dream. The way Wegner captures natural light is magic, blurring together the natural and the neon. The whole movie is just gorgeous to look at. The film’s sense of comedic timing is terrific, Zola will interject her own thoughts at various moments to hilarious outcomes. Zola remarking upon meeting a character that she won’t know his name for like 2 more days is among many great pauses for narration. I pumped my fist when I saw that Mica Levi did the score, any work she does is a blessing. Her score is rooted in a fairy tale sound with danger trying to poke through. Sign me the fuck up for 10 more films from Bravo, I don’t know anyone else could have pulled off something so hilarious and mortifying like she did.

There is not a lacking turn amongst this cast. Riley Keough is magnificent here, owning an accent that could have killed the movie’s suspension of disbelief on arrival, but rather hooks you with every word she speaks. You kind of understand how she’s able to manipulate those around her with Keough’s magnetism shining through. Taylour Paige is a wonderful discovery who we should see more of, with her you get an understanding of why she continued to go through this tale as well as her wide-eyed amazement at much of it. The chemistry between the two propels the film, it simply wouldn’t work without either of them. Colman Domingo exudes his familiar charm, but there is also a terrifying menace he brings in the same breath. Rarely does an abrupt accent change for a character signal danger like Domingo’s does. Nicholas Braun adopts a hilariously terrible haircut and facial hair, looking like a dude who belongs at a Sum 41 concert, playing the dimwit well but with unexpected emotional depth for character who serves as a walking punchline. I will always welcome Jason Mitchell in a film, and he does a lot with a little here.

My only real knock on the film is that it never really comes to any sort of point it wants to make, it just kind of ends without much to really say, but goodness gracious is it ever an exhilarating watch. It’s a forgivable sin when you’re so glued to what’s happening. I loved every minute of it, having a wide smile and a look of horror throughout, sometimes in the same scene.  A24 has another winner on their hands. I will happily see it again in theaters, and I hope you will do the same when it comes out.

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