The electrifying Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo from a script she wrote with Jeremy O. Harris, was inspired by a slightly fabulist Twitter thread written by a stripper named Zola who took a road trip to dance and wound up in the midst of a crime-fueled caper.
The film adaptation of that thread winds up as a gutsy work of art that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. Or jealous.
Zola (played with arresting confidence by Taylour Paige) meets fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough, whose performance is also a revelation) while serving her during her day job, and is quickly enticed to drive with her, Stefani's boyfriend and Stefani's roommate to Tampa to dance for the night and knock down some extra dollars. Once there, it quickly becomes clear the pitiful strip club is not the true destination — and that Stefani's roommate X (Colman Domingo) is really her cruel pimp. Stefani's cypher of a boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) is useless to provide any help, and in spite of the bursts of bravado Zola summons, she is frustratingly, and all too convincingly, no more than sullenly submissive when confronted with escalating threats and violence.
A film that could have slumped into a morality tale about the scourge of human trafficking instead remains locked on its own insane story, a quest for gritty realism and the blackest comedy over comforting messages. Because of that, this arch, at times almost cartoonish tale is bound to be polarizing. The language alone is jarring, as is the lack of Hollywood glamour. Hey, all I can say is that if actresses want to campaign for Oscars by claiming they needed mental health advocates on the sets of their cheesy features, then Paige deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom for getting through this grueling exercise in depravity and self-preservation. She is sterling in what is certainly one of the performances of 2021.
I realize I've written that Zola is a potentially divisive piece, but I can't recommend it highly enough. Propelled by committed performances and daring writing, Zola is of the moment, disruptive, compelling storytelling about characters more flawed than not. It is simultaneously a challenge and, for film lovers, a joy to watch, and it belongs on any serious year's-best list.