SUNDANCE’20 — ‘Zola’ is a Dazzling Display that Eventually Loses its Spark

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In October of 2015, Aziah “Zola” Wells posted a 144-tweet thread that went massively viral, about how she and this bitch fell out. In 2019, that story becomes a film, from Lemon director Janicza Bravo. It chronicles the true-to-life tale of two club dancers who become embroiled in the half-baked trapping schemes of the other, a tale punctuated by an array of boisterous personalities and seemingly improbabilities. It’s a story practically tailor-made to be on the big screen, the kind of weird, sexy, crazy shit that indie audiences would clamour for; weird, sexy, crazy shit that was bound to be hyped up for its Sundance debut. It’s the tale of the longest weekend ever that ends up feeling like an endless night, complemented by a sharp comedic edge, the singular talents of each of its lead cast, and the kind of quirky directorial stylings necessary for a wild story of unique characters based off, of all things, a viral twitter thread. 

Zola (a magnetic Taylour Paige) is a waitress and part time pole dancer who, by chance, waits on the table of a woman named Stefani. Well-dressed white trash with an appropriated AAVE manner of speaking, Stefani (an equally electric Riley Keough) —accompanied by a somewhat menacing and yet-unknown man (Colman Domingo)— and Zola fathom an immediate connection. Stefani tracks Zola down a little while later in the restaurant, asks her if she dances too, and the two young women indulge in a lucrative night together, putting their pole-dancing skills on sensual display to a crowd of horny strip club patrons. 

Riding off the high of vibing so well together, Stefani offers Zola another, more enticing and profitable proposition: if Zola comes with her to Florida, Stefani knows of a place where the two of them can strip and make a whopping $5k. Though a little uneasy at first, not helped by Stefani’s hesitance to divulge the inclusion of her boyfriend Derrick (Nicholas Braun in the role of a lifetime), and her roommate— the still unnamed man from the restaurant— the promise of money and Zola’s unmistakable connection with a new friend are what ultimately draws her in to this last-minute trip down south.

After Stefani wrenches herself away from a needy Derrick, she and Zola embark on an un-extraordinary time at a un-extraordinary strip club, until a selfie of the two women that Stefani takes of them ends up on a prostitution website. This is when the anonymous man (actually named X) reveals a Nigerian accent, a terrifying demeanour, and his status as Stefani’s pimp. Stefani brought Zola down to Florida to trap with her, and now Zola is trapped herself.

It’s a movie that feels, to its core, like a movie based on a twitter thread. That is to say, it thrives when it focuses on its comedy, its characters, and it’s off-the-wall action, but beneath that glimmering veneer, there isn’t much else. It’s a hard-pressed task to decide what the film is inherently about other than what’s on the surface: Zola’s escape from this endless, absurd nightmare that she has unknowingly put herself into, but even Zola feels more like an idea of a real person. Every character, however, is striking and memorable: Keough’s smart-mouthed Stefani has a whole lot of confidence and not a whole lot else; Derrick, or darling Cousin Greg from Succession, mewling with a chinstrap beard and a dream of becoming a Vine star (during a time before Vine’s inevitable demise wasn’t in the public conscious yet); and the odious X, Colman Domingo effortlessly wading back and forth between Nigerian and American accents, depending on how quickly he wants to make your blood turn cold. And then there’s Zola, Taylour Paige’s portrayal of a whip-smart, quick-witted young woman just trying to survive, but even her pitch perfect performance can’t unlock another level of character depth that is sorely missing from her and every other character in the film.

There is a heart absent from Zola that can’t be made up in the form of clever dialogue, an infectious score, and the immersion of internet culture so thickly woven into the film that pings and beeps which accompany texts and notifications end up inseparable from the non-diegetic music. Once the mad-cap action and hilarity of the first half wears off, and things take a much darker turn for Zola and Stefani, the story doesn’t really have much else to lean on. You’re watching events unfold without any emotional connection to them or to the people embroiled in them. The stakes suddenly feel very low even though they’re much higher, the charming personalities are wearing off, and Zola ends up more like a cinematic skeleton. As it is with real people, success on Twitter doesn’t always equate to success in real life, and Zola’s adaptation from tweet thread to film becomes lost in translation. 


Zola premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 24th


by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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