We’ll start with a question about “Doctor Who”.
(I am really sorry.)
Do you remember in “Doctor Who” – the new ones, not the ones with the guy in the sling – how there are fixed points in time? Unchanging moments in history (or future history) that have to happen, which is rare on a show about time travelers jostling with robots and Vincent van Gogh.
A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King’s 2015 viral Twitter feed on The Craziest Trip to Florida of All Time is a fixed point in time.
And in 2021, “Zola,” a highly anticipated film based on his story in tweets and distributed by the makers of A24’s likes, could also be a run-up. Directed by Janicza Bravo, who also wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, you realize after watching that you’ve never seen anything like it. This movie could only exist now: a movie about bad decisions, the worst consequences they have for the less powerful people, and the eternal evils that adapt to an entirely digital existence.
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No plot summary could do King’s serialized masterpiece justice, but here’s the short version of the really long-running series of events, as seen in the Bravo adaptation. Zola (played by instant star Taylour Paige) is a side-dancing waitress. One day, she befriends a moron sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough, once again making us wonder if her grandfather, who is literally Elvis Presley, could have seen this coming). Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida to earn some more money in pole dancing. As it happens in Florida, things almost immediately turn sensational. Zola ends up in a criminal train wreck, starting with prostitution and ending in blood, it’s surreal, horrible and comically absurd.
Bravo’s translation of a story born on a modern medium (the bird application) into a century-old story (the big screen) speaks two mother tongues fluently. Digital chimes subtly punctuate key plot beats, as a notification might announce a new tweet. Time stamps look like iPhone clocks. The main characters in the film recklessly walk around a phone, filming selfie footage in Migos’ “Hannah Montana” as a luxury SUV slams down an unnamed highway.
This scene is one of many that tastes the spirit of film classics before it; in this case, the shock of the millennial chaos of Harmony Korine, “Spring Breakers”. Elsewhere, Bravo and cinematographer Ari Wegner divide Zola’s image into a kaleidoscope of color and bad dream mirrors that echoes “The Red Shoes”; a later bathroom scene is pure John Waters. (The strip club scenes also give off some “Hustlers” vibes, though from a production standpoint it will be a fashionable coincidence.)
Don’t let anyone challenge you to find a moment in “Zola” that seems accidental or hastily orchestrated. Bravo’s hands are skillful and creative. See a visible hole in the sock of Stefani Derek’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun, aka cousin Greg of “Succession”, playing punch), which says a lot about an overgrown puppy hidden in the chinstrap beard. ‘a bag of dirt. There’s the timelessness of the operating movie-style movie title screen graphics and grainy, grindhouse textures. Glass bricks, potted palms, liquor – footage from the store’s security camera was swapped to move the action forward – it was Wes Anderson if he exorcised the ghost of the 1960s antique store who got him has always haunted.
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The stakes Zola finds herself in never feel less than life threatening, so the tightrope act of making the movie funny is even more awesome. Much of it comes down to editing; freeze a character’s face in a blurry blur during the introduction, or use subtitles with maximum irony.
And just as King’s literary voice animates every minute of this story, Paige’s turn as an on-screen avatar is titanic. Most of the film’s sets – Keough, Braun, and Colman Domingo as the menacing mysterious pimp – play fat, Florida fat. Paige is vigilant, not verbal; his eyes deliver whole monologues in a second. She has to be careful. No one in this world takes care of Zola and women like her.
The viewing experience of “Zola” is also chaotic, so it particularly rewards viewers. The awe-inspiring internet personality Ts Madison leads a behind-the-scenes prayer at a strip club that develops a fervor no less religious than any of your Sunday prayers I’m sure. All the sex scenes – there’s a lot of sex here – are filmed with dignity, whether it’s Zola and her partner or a client showing up in a hotel room.
The camera lingers on a Confederate flag on a highway. The only time we see the police in a film entirely devoted to the mortal peril of a black woman: as they dismount ominously on a faceless figure by the side of the road crying for help. One scene, where a white character offers an armed alternate story of the events of the film via social media to discredit Zola, is hilarious long enough to realize it’s too real to be truly ridiculous.
An old evil. Just has one url now.
And man, that’s always hard to take into account. “Zola” ties Stefani to a swaying sympathy fan: sometimes she’s laughable, then she’s contemptible, then she’s sympathetic. Keough portrays a poor white woman who affects a parody of black culture, but at the same time, the film’s caricatures plunge into class mockery. A sexual assault scene at the end of the film repulsively argues the persistent abuse of women. Does showing him really repudiate him?
King’s cheeky and captivating Twitter thread was still heartbreaking, but just six years ago it looked funnier too. Driven by Bravo’s elegant and ruthless vision, “Zola” peels the pulp to surrender to the peril that has always existed. It had to happen.
The past and the present all converge in Florida.
To note: A
With: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Director: Janicza Bravo
Rated: R for strong sexual content, sexual assault, overall language, graphic nudity, and violence
Duration of operation: 1 hour 27 minutes
Watch: In theaters June 30