“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here feel out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense”
This is the tweet that kicked off a 148-tweet thread detailing the heart-pounding adventure A’Ziah “Zola” Wells King went on when she agreed to go to Tampa for the weekend with a girl she just met. It’s a story that blew up online, grabbing the attention of writer/director Janicza Bravo (Lemon), who then worked with co-writer Jeremy O. Harris to adapt not just the thread but the following Rolling Stone article written by David Kushner. Even though a few of the names are changed, as well as the ways a few events played out, there’s something so wildly outrageous about the tale that it has to be seen (or read) to be believed. Some weren’t sure if Bravo’s Zola would be seen after its 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere due to COVID-19, but it finally landed in select theaters June of 2021 and now is out on home video. Buckle up, this is a wild ride.
While waiting tables, Zola (Taylour Paige) serves Stefani (Riley Keough) and her lunch date and the two have an instant connection. They swap numbers and, soon, Stefani invites Zola to join her, her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her roommate X (Colman Domingo) for a weekend trip to Tampa where both girls could dance and make $5k a night. Excited at the prospect and eager to spend time with her new friend, Zola agrees, packs her bags, and hops in X’s car. It’s not long after arriving in Tampa that Zola starts to get a bad feeling and it only gets worse as the weekend drags on.
Ordinarily a home release review for a film I’ve not seen would be spoiler-free, but I need to delve into some aspects of this film which require specificity to do, so what follows will be a quick breakdown of the home release features before getting into the film proper. A spoiler-warning will come for those who wish to go in blind.
This A24/Lionsgate home release is fairly bare in terms of special features, but what you get will likely delight those who enjoyed Zola. For one, there’s feature length commentary from Bravo and editor Joi McMillion (If Beale Street Could Talk/Moonlight). Given how much of the film’s rhythm and storytelling structure leans heavily on the editing, including McMillion to discuss her work alongside Bravo should excite anyone engaged in a rewatch. For a little behind the scenes info, the 12 minute “Y’all Wanna Hear a Story: Making Zola” featurette invites the audience to learn about the whole production from Wells, Bravo, the cast, and members of the crew. Typically, a home release might break up a featurette into chunks — production, cast, approach — but this release puts them all in one featurette. Watching this after finishing the film opened up a perspective I hadn’t considered, including how Bravo sees Zola’s journey and her relationship to Stefani. The final third special feature is a five-minute deleted scenes collection which can be viewed with or without commentary from Bravo, but can’t be selected individually. You either watch them all or nothing. You can tell why each of the scenes were removed for tone or pacing, even if one in particular — a scene of Stefani at home with Derrek and her baby — would’ve been an interesting addition.
As promised, here’s the spoiler warning as we dig into the film proper.
In the run-up to its Sundance release, there was a lot of chatter about Wells’s wild and outrageous story and, since both initial and wide releases, that’s all I kept hearing about with reactions to it falling either in the “love it” or “meh” category. Perhaps it’s due to all the “wild night” stories Hollywood’s produced, but the *idea* of what Zola would be didn’t measure up. Heck, the recent episode of Ted Lasso focused on Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), “Beard After Hours,” is more of what all the talk of Zola I presumed would look like: someone put through one heightened situation after another, each escalating to a place beyond reason. This isn’t to say that the story doesn’t *go places* because it does, but that feeling of a heightened reality comes more from direction, performance, and Ari Wegner’s (In Fabric) cinematography. In the biggest twist, what’s terrifying about Zola’s adventure is how grounded in reality it is, where someone might accidentally find themselves trusting the wrong person, getting caught up in prostitution, kidnapping, and a near suicide. Not to mention nearly getting traded as property at gunpoint. I recognize that that last bit doesn’t seem particularly grounded, but the way Bravo tells this story, it’s not only presented as a natural escalation, but an unsurprising one in the wider scope of the story. If there is something to be frustrated by, it’s how the film ends with Zola and company in a car driving down the road to, presumably, leave town. Compared to the emotional nature of the entire third act, it’s just an abrupt and hard stop that you’d be forgiven for letting out an audible “what?!” when the credits begin. Frankly, I don’t know how you can end this story with any cinematic grace and yet, perhaps because we never see Zola get home, it feels as though the story isn’t over despite what the credits indicate.
What deserves a great deal of applause, though, is both subtle performances and what they convey. Paige as Zola is powerful, presenting someone totally comfortable with themselves, capable of recognizing where her line is and communicating it, and able to quickly read any situation. Sometimes this presents itself through the way she speaks to someone or is merely a physical reaction, but there’s only one time in the film where Zola isn’t in full control of her situation. Even in the moment where Zola takes Stefani to a random house filled with men, she’s shocked to learn, who are waiting for a gang bang (a scene Bravo describes in the “Making Zola” featurette as arriving in Hell), we, the audience, don’t fear for her safety. Even when X threatens her poolside, we’re concerned, but, by this point, are also aware that she’s clever enough to figure out a way to safety. Some of this, of course, comes from the fact that we’re consciously aware that Zola makes it out to draft her epic thread, but we can see it plain as day in both script and performance from Paige that Zola isn’t helpless. As her main scene partner, Keough is no slouch either, which is to be expected from the accomplished actor (Mad Max: Fury Road, American Honey, Logan Lucky, The Lodge). Her performance of Stefani could easily be seen as a step too far and it’s mostly due to Keough’s skilled talent at jumping between being vulnerable and an active predator that creates shades of humanity instead of parody or satire. We learn in the “Making Zola” featurette that Keough worked with a vocal coach and sent samples to Bravo in order to tweak the accent until it rode the line between insult and honesty and it shows. The accent she uses, though, brings us to an undercurrent aspect that makes Zola seem unpredictable from start to finish, and this is exemplified via Domingo’s performance: code-switching.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, code-switching references to someone alternating between languages, physical behavior, and even dress when moving between situations or groups. People do this subconsciously all the time when moving between their social circles of home, family, friends, work, etc. Bravo puts this into action at first at the beginning of the film when we meet Zola as she’s working and chatting with her friend. There’s not much difference between her tone and approach when speaking to anyone throughout the film, but it does shift to match pitch and language-type (African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE) when she initially chats with Stefani. Doing so highlights how they quickly land on the same frequency, solidifying their connection (one which plays like a romance from start to finish in cinematography and editing). Stefani, however, never switches unless she’s with a client and, even then, it’s more a move toward submissive behavior than language or movement. But where it gets terrifying is Domingo’s performance as X, a character which Domingo lights up with a magnetic energy and plays as the type of villain that we can’t help but be absorbed by when he’s on scene. His public persona is warm and positive, but if you, or in this case, Zola, threaten his good time or his wallet, his vocal inflection changes to include a cultural affectation from a foreign country. One way to read the shift is that his accent is different from what we’ve seen from Zola therefore is an unknown quantity, but the more dangerous aspect is that his public-facing one is what he uses unless he wants to truly threaten someone. It’s revealing in the kind of ways that, by unsettling Zola, the audience gets unsettled in the process. There is, I’m sure, someone who’s done a reading of the film in its presentation of Stefani and Derrek using AAVE and that’s something I’d love to go over myself because it’s that kind of detail that makes Bravo’s film gripping.
When it’s all said and done, it’s the technical approach and performances that make Zola memorable. Bravo overlays a dream-like quality over the narrative, making it seem hyperreal and grounded all at once. Including the sound of birds tweeting or the clicks of a cellphone is a brilliant move as it reminds us that what we’re watching is entirely in the past and is inspired by an online tale. All of this comes together to form a film which is, at times, otherworldly while highlighting the strong and capable presence of its lead. From start to finish I bought into the fantasy elements, I believed the terror and tension Paige’s Zola battled to maintain her ground, and I fought off the creeping icy fingers of horror as each situation grew in to believable but absurd heights. Yet, somehow, Bravo keeps the events at such a distance that, even in our growing discomfort, we’re never truly afraid for Zola, we’re just afraid with her.
Zola Special Features
- Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Janicza Bravo and Editor Joi McMillon
- “Y’all Wanna Hear a Story: Making Zola” Featurette (12:37)
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary (5:37)
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital September 14th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.