Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.

It starts in a restaurant. She is Zola (Taylour Paige), a waitress. She is Stefani (Riley Keough), arm candy seated in Zola’s booth. Stefani likes Zola’s breasts. Zola likes the compliment. She could use a friend, and it looks like Stefani could use one too. Maybe more. Do you dance? Sometimes…

Truth is, Zola used to strip but stopped for her boyfriend. Stefani also told her boyfriend, Derek (Nicholas Braun), she stopped for him. She also told him she stopped hooking. Neither is true. But Derek is a little slow on the uptake. Zola is, too, but only in some ways. In others, she’s top of the class. When Stefani asks Zola to accompany her on a road trip to Tampa to make some money dancing, Zola says yes a little too readily. That regret registers the second Zola shows up at the car and finds Derek and X (Colman Domingo) along for the ride. X is Stefani’s pimp, and he turns out to be a pretty lousy one at that. When this is all said and done, Zola will be ten times the pimp X is. She just wishes she wasn’t.

Colman Domingo and Taylour Paige in Zola. Photos by Anna Kooris, courtesy A24.

At least, that’s the way Zola tells it—or told it on Twitter. Her side comes courtesy A’Ziah King, aka @zolarmoon, the woman who fired off 148 tweets on Oct. 27, 2015, known as #TheStory. What a story. There are some parts too good to be true, but what’s a story without a little embellishment? Or the opposing side? Stefani’s side comes courtesy of a Reddit post, and it’s a doozy: She is a god-fearing Christian woman, taken by the duplicitous Zola into the den of iniquity, starring down the receiving end of a gangbang.

As you might suspect, Zola—the dramatic retelling of #TheStory directed by Janicza Bravo—is not for those squeamish about sex work. It is, however, an awful lot of fun, even if it’s about the very real horrors of human trafficking and sex exploitation. In another filmmaker’s hands, Zola would be a hedonistic comedy of errors. Not here. Here, Bravo continually subverts expectations by disrupting the soundtrack, dropping sound effects of tweets and dings as punctuation, and playing counterpoint whenever possible.

There’s an interesting but under-seen movie about famed porn star Linda Lovelace from 2013—aptly titled Lovelace—with the first half of the narrative presenting Lovelace’s ascendency in the industry as the Hollywood glamour story. It tells the story of a girl who just liked having sex and used that enjoyment for the betterment of herself and the pleasure of others. Then the movie doubles back and takes it from her perspective, and what do you know: It was all a lie. Lovelace wasn’t a goodtime girl frolicking in the bushes; she was the sex slave of her domineering husband.

Zola walks a similar line only Bravo manages to present both sides simultaneously. The more the danger surrounding Zola escalates, the less opportunity she has to escape. X routinely falls in and out of two well-crafted accents, is dumber than a bag of rocks one minute and an accomplished businessman the next—there’s no way pimping bought him that house, what else is he up to? Stefani looks and acts like a girl who tries hard enough to leave the life but never really succeeds. One moment suggests she has a drug problem. Another suggests she’s doing all this for her kid. Both might be true, or both might be constructs. You never quite know. And then there’s Derek. What he does is stranger than fiction.

Bravo succeeds by keeping the viewer on uneven ground—sometimes too uneven—for the entirety of Zola. Her camera is always in the right place to not show you what’s coming next. As the characters restate to the audience, it’s a long story, but it’s full of suspense. And, as Bravo adds in the opening title cards: “Most of what follows is true.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Zola (2020)
Directed by Janicza Bravo
Written by Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris
Story by David Kushner
Tweets by A’Ziah King
Produced by Kara Baker, Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, Christine Vachon, Gia Walsh
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
A24, Rated R, Running time 86 minutes, Opens June 30, 2021.

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