Zola – Sundance London Film Festival 2021 – Film Review

Zola may just be the Thelma and Louise story for the social media era as it is that story based on the Twitter thread from Zolar Moon that went viral in 2015. Just as compelling as it was to read the 140 tweet thread this incarnation equally provides thrills and spills from the outset in this tale of a girls’ weekend road trip that goes wrong. It is inconceivable that all of these engrossing wild events only take place over 48 hours but this is testament to Taylour Paige’s engaging performance as the titular Zola and Janicza Bravo’s music video influenced direction and fast paced edits that continually titillate throughout.

Zola embodies a dreamy but gritty rags to riches story for our heroine as she is befriended by fun filled Stefani for a weekend getaway to make more money. It is a world however, with an undercurrent of misogyny, where the women refer to each other as ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ as they overtake the stripping world by storm as a form of sexual empowerment potentially but equally as a way to fulfil their future achievements. After films such as Hustlers, it is again refreshing to see these stories portraying the stripping industry from a female lens. Zola contains harp, heavenly sounding music as well as flattering lighting and poses for the women under the female gaze of Bravo’s direction. As such, these women seem in control of their vision for their destiny despite the looming danger.

However, the dizzying camera panning and hip hop video style editing does present a chaotic scenario reminiscent of Stefani’s lifestyle. It is easy to understand why Zola or indeed anyone would wish to be her friend with her overwhelmingly colourful personality and that semblance of innocence. Bravo accentuates these personality traits, particularly during a montage of a revolving door of men on their trip as it goes awry and more sinister activities are unravelled.

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige as Stefani and Zola in Zola

Bravo ensures that, as the audience, we are witnessing these outlandish events unfold from Zola’s point of view. Just as Zola is amazed by the sinister turn of events so too are we simultaneously. It is an impressively compelling film with a standout performance from Paige ranging from incredulity to cynicism. Colman Domingo also provides a mesmerising performance as he menacingly glowers as a pimp but charms the women and is even prone to code switching when necessary. His presence fills the screen with an edgy allure which is intoxicating and ultimately seductive to the extent that it is impossible for any woman to resist.

Just as Domingo switches his tone, so does the film which can be uneven as it wildly fluctuates between extremes but remains amusing. Zola as a film entertains rather than adding any new layers to a tale concerning the world of strippers.  Where it does distinguish itself is by virtue of the female lens, which adds sensitivity, and some aesthetically pleasing cinematography, when the film does leave the confines of motel rooms.  During such scenes, the film remembers that it is effectively depicting a road trip and it presents an appealing view of Tampa with a glamorous façade.

Zola, in using a Twitter thread as a device for the basis of its existence, provides a new technique to storytelling for films, which may represent a new and innovative direction for the film industry. Whilst Zola is faithful to the energy disseminated in the Twitter thread, the film does require further character development to avoid being one dimensional.

Overall, Zola will have audiences dancing to its pulsating soundtrack and embracing the camaraderie in the film and wishing to be one of the girls in this remarkable and riveting debut.

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