Every once in a while a movie comes out that makes a billion dollars and that critics and audiences both fall in love with, yet I end up hating it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. A few years ago, that movie was the J.Lo flick "Hustlers," which I found to be a condescending and inauthentic look at sex work that didn't know whether it was a female friendship parable or a cautionary tale about greed. That film somehow felt less honest than "Magic Mike," which is a damn fantasy.
Enter "Zola," a movie about sex workers that manages to walk a very thin line between hilarious and terrifying without ever crossing over into pandering Hollywood bulls*it. It's a film that seems almost trivial at first, basically inconsequential, and then slowly the tension starts building and "Zola" becomes a nightmarish look at social media combined with a true account of a weekend that went from fun to dangerous in the blink of an eye.
"Zola" is the first film ever made based on a viral Twitter thread, but if you're anti social media (heh) don't let that deter you from seeing the film. In October of 2015, a waitress in Detroit named Aziah "Zola" King posted a 147-tweet thread about a trip she took to Florida with a stripper named Jessica, Jessica's boyfriend Derrek and Jessica's "roommate" X. Without dropping into too many spoilers, the trip goes very poorly for everyone involved as suicide, murder and prostitution eventually become a huge part of the whole Florida experience.
Taylour Paige absolutely steals the film as Zola, and this should mark the beginning of a massive new career. Zola is ultimately the only decent human being in the entire film and without Paige filling her with vulnerability and intelligence, the movie would have been impossible to sit through. We know Zola will be OK because she lives to tweet the tale, but we desperately want her to escape unscathed, without new scars she has to carry through life.
The America that we see in "Zola" is ugly, the people are scary and the world is cold and might not even notice if you disappeared forever. There's so much ugliness and grime to the film that it sticks to you long after it ends, but not in a way that feels oppressive or dirty. "Zola" creates a sense of empathy with even the most terrifying individual in the movie, someone who is (or was) real and did the horrible things in the film. As we watch Zola's situation in Florida spiral into a terrifying combination of kidnapping, human trafficking and senseless violence, we're still able to see the humanity in everyone involved, even as we despise them.
"Zola" isn't necessarily a fun watch or an uplifting one. It's a cautionary tale about trust that makes the world feel claustrophobic and too large to bear at the same time. The film is easily one of the best of the year so far with filmmaker Janicza Bravo directing each frame with care and compassion. It's bravura filmmaking combining the heart of "The Florida Project" with the zany style of "Spring Breakers," enhanced with scenery-chewing performances across the board, but it's still not an easy film to watch. The distributor A24 makes challenging movies, and this is definitely another in the long line of uncomfortable excellence that it so expertly curates.
"Zola" might be a tough movie to watch, but it feels true and authentic in ways crap like "Hustlers" can't even approach. If you want to make a movie about sex work that's supposed to be true, then don't spoon-feed audiences sanitized white guilt on a plate. Be like Zola and be fearless and gritty and beautiful. It takes courage to make something that will feel true to audiences and, if that's the barometer, then "Zola" is fearless.
Dir. Janicza Bravo
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