Zola – A story crazier on paper than it is on screen

Zola is showing at Sundance London on the 1st August, book tickets here

Y’all wanna hear a review about Janicza Bravo’s Zola? It’s kind of wild and full of Floridian antics. Okay, listen up. Back in 2015, you may or may not remember a prolific Twitter thread by Aziah ‘Zola’ King, in which she detailed what could best be described as a fucked up weekend in Florida, or possibly just a regular Florida weekend. Many commented on the movie-like nature of the events, and it’s hard to deny that – as it was captivating! Especially with King’s penmanship. The story had this raw, gritty feeling to it, a journey that you wanted to sink your teeth into and not stop until you had reached the end. Clearly, A24 noticed this, and being a ‘trendy’ distributor, snapped up the rights whilst the film was in production. 

Taylour Paige’s Zola is a waitress-by-day, dancer-by-night. But, when a chance encounter with our glammed-up, ditzy Stefani (Riley Keough) leads the two to begin a journey down to Florida, things heat up. Both Keough and Paige have fantastic chemistry. Paige’s brilliant encapsulation of Zola is willing to take a risk but intelligent enough to know when enough is enough. While at the same time, Keough almost mirrors Paige throughout their developing relationship, parroting Paige’s own words back at her constantly, sometimes to reassure, other times to challenge.


When Stefani’s guise begins to drop, Keough takes on a more sociopathic nature, like a snake shedding its skin to reveal itself. Meanwhile, what’s perfect about Paige’s performance is her ability to command such “fuck this shit” energy with a mere gaze or a small gesture. We can understand Zola without her ever having to utter a word, in turn, creating a three-dimensional individual out of a two-dimensional profile. 

We also have the mysterious ‘X’, played by Euphoria’s Colman Domingo, who’s always a delight to watch in any role, alongside the cuckolded punching bag of Nicholas Braun’s Derrek, Stefani’s boyfriend. These two essentially define the oscillating tone that Zola moves back-and-forth through, from darkness to comedy. 

Zola is an undeniable dark comedy, and for the most part, it achieves this through its comedic framing of suffering, especially concerning Derrek. Of course, to even be named Derrek with two Rs is suffering enough. But, it’s quickly evident that dating Stefani is an endurance he’s running out of steam with.


‘X’, on the other hand, quickly reveals himself to be the puppet-master of both Stefani and Derrek, and this is where the film diverts from the crazy energy of King’s tweets. As the nefarious truth of the weekend is revealed, Bravo shifts focus, reinterpreting Stefani in an altered light. Allowing us to understand that although she has a hand in tricking Zola, it’s out of her control. She’s a victim of trauma, trapped in the suffocating life of a prostitute. This is a reinterpretation of Stefani we don’t get with the tweets; her character tinged with a more profound sadness than perhaps many expected.

The traumatic nature of the weekend is undoubtedly something Bravo taps. A theme woefully understated in King’s tweets, who wanted to tell a good story, not overwhelm everyone with emotional baggage. However, considering her executive producer status, it wouldn’t surprise me if she decided to allow some of that to be emitted in these quiet, dark moments.


Trauma constantly sits on Zola’s fringes and at times threatens to upset the comedic bent of this road trip, especially toward the film’s close. And although not as openly expressed as Stefani’s, it’s clear the weekend traumatises Zola too. The only difference being she is more strong-willed, with Paige not allowing her to crack so easily. Even in her closest encounter, we can almost feel Paige’s slow, calculated breathing. Compartmentalising and calming herself despite the potential horrific actions about to unfold. But, as we barrel toward the films dark conclusion, Zola struggles to balance both elements. After all, when comedy is rooted in suffering, exploring the trauma born from suffering can become tonally confusing. And while this does not threaten the film as a whole, it certainly catches you off guard enough to give you pause for thought. 

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel like Zola’s story is crazier on paper than on the screen. We’ve seen many of these things happen countless times in fiction, and perhaps it’s the real-life element that adds to the unbelievability of the story – when people say, “that sounds like a movie!” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an incredible film. The greatness is in the tale-weaving rather than the cinematic reinterpretation. Nevertheless, Zola is still primarily an entertaining watch and a fun ride to be taken on, if only for the weekend. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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