A24, upon the release of “Zola,” reposted an Instagram story calling for support of Black women, stories and creatives. That was very A24 of them, a Twitter-era chemist of the political and cinematic. Yet, solidarity may be the best reason to see “Zola”; the best you can say of Janicza Bravo’s sophomore feature is that it delivers to solidarity the rough-edged originality and personality of a small business.
Like a small business, “Zola,” pins its heart to its sleeve, but the film’s heart is a Post-it note. Written on the two-by-two, paper-thin note are fragments, stopping and starting, sometimes with the cadence of a viral Twitter thread, such as the one from Aziah “Zola” Wells it’s based on.
The story’s fragments start around girl boss and end near sex trafficking, but they flit by too quickly to mean much and exist too briefly to address any one thing. In a luxuriously tidy opening, a camera finds strippers Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) staring off, surrounded by mirrors. The trance is interrupted much the same way Twitter feeds were in October 2015, when a searing Zola asks, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????”
The story is “long” and “full of suspense,” as Wells told it. The film — not so much. Wild surprises abound, almost always true to the tweets, but they’re chopped up and stranded by a script that indulges in lulls. Zola, who practices dancing on a pole in the middle of her living room, joins Stefani, her boyfriend Derrick (Nicholas Braun, Cousin Greg of “Succession”) and her “friend” credited only as “X” (Colman Domingo) for a road trip from Detroit to Florida.
The purpose: a “hoes trip,” which might be a bit early in the two’s friendship, given Zola met Stefani just a day earlier while waiting on her at a sports bar (originally a Hooters). But the allure of a good gig is hard to resist, much less the promise of cash showering from the Miami skies. The reality is less than pleasing. The two dance after dumping Derrick at a dumpy motel, but the cash is just a drizzle. And it turns out that X isn’t a friend at all; he’s Stefani’s very chilling pimp. An accent comes out to play as the enraged X threatens Zola — herself and Stefani speaking in accents injected with Twitter-speak — into a night of turning tricks.
Hiding in here are some gems. Bravo toys with ambivalence: Sometimes the world is bad, sometimes it’s good, and the director is happy to reflect that. She goes further by refusing to single out a villain. Occasionally society is the culprit, and occasionally X is to blame; in one scene: Why doesn’t a pool boy raise any alarms about Zola arguing with X? Bravo recognizes blame can be a game of semantics, and she breezes by with an unhurried, lush visual style.
That open style, beautiful as it is at times, bleeds into wandering. Perhaps “Zola” was never meant to be the “wild” ride it was pitched as. What Bravo creates is chunks of wild rides, cut off by such ephemera as mesmerizing car rides and atmospheric elevators before the characters take the film in gonzo directions.
The backdrop to the film’s credits is a long, unbroken shot of the Florida Keys, taken fixed from a car driving the Seven Mile Bridge, facing the old bridge. It drags on. The green-blue sea is transfixing, but nothing breaks its hold. In the film, someone gets shot, someone else jumps off a balcony, but those are just the ocean lapping against the legs of the bridge across from us. Bravo chooses reverie over assault, captivating with fleeting beauty instead of beguiling with catastrophe.
There’s something to say about “Zola” being bound to the internet, punctuated by a phone’s dings, chirps and more. More importantly, the still-young but already-long and miserable tradition of films abusing the sounds of the internet as stress triggers returns. “Zola,” with all of its potential for insanity, elects for a visually appealing but halting story of a night gone off of the rails. Those looking for something truly wild: Keep scrolling.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].