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Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2021)

You had to be there, because nothing quite describes the collective, still unmatched frenzy that welcomed a series of 148 tweets by one A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015, detailing her disastrous road trip to Florida with a fellow stripper. In what must surely be the first film based on a viral tweet thread, director Janicza Bravo’s Zola, co-written with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, translates King’s outlandish, kinetic material into an effortlessly funny Odyssean fable: a descent into nightmare for a Black woman merely seeking reprieve from life’s monotony.

The film plunges us immediately into its scintillating dreamscape, a reverie decadently shot on 16mm. When we first meet Zola (Taylour Paige), she is visibly bored by her mundane life, her job at Hooters, and her dull relationship with her earnest boyfriend who barely holds her attention. She drifts half-distracted through the film’s early scenes until she meets Stefani (the dependably adroit Riley Keough) at Hooters. In a trance-like moment, the pair are instantly drawn to each other. “You got nice titties,” Stefani tells her. Both are exotic dancers, and by the end of the night, they’re dancing together at a strip club.

Per contemporary etiquette, Zola and Stefani seal their bond by connecting on various social media platforms. This newfound, deceptive intimacy and Zola’s vague ennui are enough to send our heroine on a long drive South at Stefani’s invitation to “make some money.” Accompanying them on the trip are Stefani’s blundering boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate” (a fantastic Colman Domingo). In the first of the film’s many twists, this roommate—who’s credited simply as “X”—turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and Zola discovers she has been lured into a prostitution scam.

Zola is forthright about the realities of sex work—a job as perfunctory as it is precarious—and reserved about the questions of empowerment the profession’s on-screen depictions typically entail. In movies like 2019’s Hustlers, sex workers’ pursuit of wealth is accompanied by a moral descent. Zola, on the other hand, remains unseduced by either money or illusions of power. When X sets what Zola considers an obscenely low price for Stefani, she negotiates more money from Stefani’s clients, far out-earning anything the pimp expects. It’s a matter-of-fact declaration of Zola’s agency and savvy, but the move cues neither liberation nor a downfall.

But Bravo and Harris’s script seems rather incurious about its characters’ inner worlds. We learn that Stefani has a daughter whom she hustles for, but there’s no indication of what binds her emotionally to X. Nor is it clear why exactly Zola feels so bored with her attentive boyfriend and falls prey to the charms of a stranger. Perhaps in an effort to preserve its dark-comedic tone, the film never quite fleshes the characters out as real, vulnerable women, even during its more dire episodes.

What takes precedence instead is the voyeurism that pervades women’s lives. In the prelude to their journey, when Zola and Stefani perform together at a strip club, they apply their makeup in a dimly lit hall of mirrors, fluffing their hair and adorning their mouths with bright-colored lipstick. We return to them often in this increasingly symbolic space that feels suspended somewhere between reality and the Internet. Here, Zola displays her authorship (often signaled by the Twitter bird sound) over her story and her image, as when she turns to the mirror and asks, “Who are we gonna be tonight?” This limbo encapsulates the to-be-looked-at-ness of social media and sex work, which is complicated by Zola’s identity as a Black woman: a figure historically hypersexualized and distorted in dominant cultural representations, and excluded from prevailing conceptions of femininity. For much of the film, Zola functions principally as an observer, refusing to participate in paid sex and spending most scenes as a bystander to the heated conflicts that arise between Stefani, X, and Derrek. The story unfolds through Zola’s eyes, with Paige communicating through wonderfully expressive reactions and holding the camera with her gaze.

Then, more than halfway through the film, the perspective switches to Stefani, who turns to the screen and briefly recounts an altogether different and unconvincing version of events. “I fear God,” she insists. Seen through her eyes, Zola appears disheveled, dressed in a garbage bag, and speaks in excessive slang. It’s an absurd parody of society’s stereotypes of Black womanhood, the aesthetic trappings of which Stefani herself awkwardly appropriates. Keough nimbly performs this guileless mimicry: from her slicked down baby hair to her stereotypically “sassy” gestures to her faux accent, Stefani presents to Zola a distorted mirror—a performance of Black femininity transformed into grotesque costume, or rather, commodity. (Domingo, the crown jewel in nearly every production he has appeared in these past few years, also embodies this treacherous duality as a charming yet sadistic man who slips in and out of a Nigerian accent, his eye glimmering an eerie green when the light hits it just right.)

Florida is perhaps the quintessential American dream state, where the fantasy of capitalist paradise and unfettered luxury masks a sinister underbelly. Works like Body Heat (1981), Miami Vice (both the 1984 series and 2006 film), and Wild Things (1998) all imagine the region as an almost enchanted space of seedy lawlessness, where sex and crime are intertwined. A24 boasts something of its own Florida Cinematic Universe, which generally takes two forms: in Moonlight (2016) and the less-convincing Waves (2019), Black teenagers come of age in sun-soaked or moon-bathed coastal scenes. Zola is more closely kinned with the second type, including Spring Breakers (2012) and The Florida Project (2017), where candy-colored palettes disguise a perilous bleakness. The rot that troubles the land is entangled with a history that many of these films either skirt or elude entirely. But Zola senses the horror even before the film swaps its confectionery hues for the underworld imagery of winding dark roads: a Confederate flag billows above the characters as they enter the state; later, they drive past a Black man being attacked by slur-spewing police. Zola has yet more violence to witness, but it is arguably the masquerade, the hollow beauty of her surroundings, that she most desperately wishes to leave behind. Despite the abruptness of Zola’s ending, its pointed shots of roads and highways hint at the real tragedy: that the exit is still far off.

Kelli Weston is a film critic whose work has been published in Sight & Sound, Mubi Notebook, and Reverse Shot.