Based on a viral series of tweets, Zola tells the story of a stripper (Taylour Paige), and her new best friend, Stephani (Riley Keough), as they set out to Florida for a weekend to make some serious cash.
For a tale told in 148 tweets, director Janicza Bravo manages to bring a cheeky and inventive piece to the screen. She manages to unlock the lyrical nature of social media and texts, bringing a sense of poetry to the short exchanges. All told, it’s impressive to see the bag of tricks that she brings to Zola, creating something that is visually stylish, and entertainingly paced. Often the story will halt for Zola to address her followers, interjecting her point of view on the proceedings…or in one case…finding her “happy place” during a tense sequence, and bringing her audience with her. As such, it manages to keep a freshness and lightness to its zippy one hour twenty six run time.
Bravo is aided in this by the curious soundscape created by Mica Levi (Micachu) for the film. They manage to blend well with the beautifully shot visuals bringing a surreal candy pop reality to the proceedings. It buoys the film, never allowing it to get too lost in the darkness of the events.
But Zola truly rests on the shoulders of two performances. Taylour Paige and Riley Keough spar well against each other, firstly as friends, and then as something else (not exactly enemies, but the relationship certainly sours in short order during the trip). Paige brings a solid performance as the narrator, dragging the audience through the unbelievable events of the weekend, while giving us a vivid insight to how perturbed Zola is, while Keough brings us a multifaceted character that is both villain and victim (your mileage may vary on which side of the coin you place her).
The issue with Zola is that it never goes deep enough. There’s a lot of effort to capture the bright facade of social media, and although it does delve into the myth of creation of identity through such platforms, it often feels that it prioritises storytelling and pacing over examination. Given the dark subject matter it is exploring, Zola ends up feeling like it’s barely scratched the surface, seeming glossy and hollow.
So at the end, you are left with a bit of a conundrum with Zola. While it is certainly bright and talented film-making, and enjoyable cinema, the subject matter it is dealing with deserves a bit more depth than just being passed through the Instagram filter.