' ' Cinema Romantico: Zola

Wednesday, November 03, 2021


Janicza Bravo’s “Zola” and Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” would appear to having nothing in common. After all, the latter was based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article profiling Public Television’s favorite son Mr. Rogers while the former is based on the 2015 Twitter thread of A’Ziah “Zola” King recounting a calamitous Florida road trip. Heller, however, did not simply dramatize Junod’s article, as one might dramatize a Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction book, but aesthetically rendered a movie embodying the disarming voice of Fred Rogers. And in creating a movie whose tone seems to levitate for its entire run time between buoyant and blood-curdling, irreverent and serious, Bravo embodies King’s voice too, the way Twitter’s short post platform is designed to double back on itself or turn itself inside-out with every refresh. Late in the movie, when Zola (Taylour Paige) enters a Florida hotel to rescue her new B.F.F. Stefani (Riley Keough) from a hostage situation, the camera captures a pair of painfully unhip white people playing and dancing to steel drum music. It’s almost surreal, two contradictory sensations, though Bravo fuses the steel drum music with her own tension-raising musical score, an evocation of Twitter’s penchant for improbable synthesis, like scrolling your feed on January 6th and seeing images of the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Kim Kardashian memes, one right after the other. 

Despite this contemporary framework, hyper-accentuated by all of social media’s attendant bells and whistles, persistent notification pings on the soundtrack mirroring the soundtrack of modern life, “Zola’s” story of a busted friendship is ancient, aptly set up by Zola’s opening line: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why and me this bitch here fell out?” That bitch is Stefani (Riley Keough), an exotic dancer, who turns up at the restaurant where Zola works. Between the doo wop music and harp strings on the soundtrack, Bravo consciously elevates this origin story out of the realm of reality, suggesting it is too good to be true, which it is. Though Stefani invites Zola to accompany her on a trip to Florida to earn some money stripping, something is off from the jump when Zola discovers their trip will include two more people: Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her enigmatic roommate (Colman Domingo), known simply as “X.” He’s not her roommate, he’s her pimp, and is Zola becomes embroiled in the same prostitution scam as Stefani, just trying to survive, as her Twitter becomes some amalgamation of confessional, outlet, and soapbox. 

The situation’s inherent terror, however, does not dampen Zola’s sense of humor, heard in so many voiceover quips, or the movie’s liveliness, with Bravo even managing to mine something new from the hoary projectile vomit setpiece. At the same time, even amid such playfulness, “Zola” never demeans its characters for stripping and never passes judgement on sex work. Zola sits these various door-to-door calls out but also becomes something like Stefani’s protector and even, on occasion, adviser, negotiating a higher pay for the clients Stefani entertains at some plush hotel. This last scene is kind of incredible, with the camera lingering on the men more than the women, graphically so, nothing less than the oft-lamented Male Gaze being hysterically turned back around itself. If a dude tells you something like, say, I didn’t need to see that, that’s how you know the scene has done its job.

In presenting Derrek as an out-of-his-depth putz, “Zola” is also presenting him as one of Zola’s three tripmates most decidedly himself, meaning the one most easily taken advantage of. X, on the other hand, as the name implies, as if “Last Year at Marienbad” has been filtered through “Spring Breakers”, harmonizes with the movie’s tonal duality. He slips in and out of a Nigerian accent, mirroring his u-turns between wicked charm and intimidation, someone who feels entirely alive in the hands of Domingo and yet totally unknown. And that is to say nothing of Stefani, an astonishing character and astonishing performance. In the way that Topher Grace, playing David Duke in “BlacKkKlansman”, trusted Spike Lee, Keough trusts Bravo, taking her blaccent to the limit, playing appropriation, not appropriating, which the aforementioned perspective shift from Zola to Stefani makes clear; what Stefani sees in this moment, is more or less what Keough is playing.

Or, looking through the looking glass the other way, Keough is playing what the character of Zola is seeing, an exaggerated abomination of a stereotype. Indeed, if sometimes it can come across as if we do not know what Zola is thinking, this very idea of what she is seeing illustrates what she is thinking, a story told from her perspective. Bravo evokes that perspective both with shots of Zola’s wide, probing eyes, often framed with other characters in the foreground, so you can see her processing, and point-of-view shots, so that back-to-back images of a looming white cross and waving stars and bars alongside a freeway do not feel like auteurist inserts but Zola’s own penchant for noticing. And when the perspective does briefly, suddenly, flip to Stefani, it is an effectively jarring reminder of whose voice we have been listening to and just how rare it feels to hear her side of such stories.

Who she is, on the other hand, remains more of an open question by movie’s end, though that also is by design. “Who do you want to be tonight, Zola?” she asks herself, summarizing social media’s amorphous relationship to identity, one visually demonstrated in the opening sequence, of Zola and Stefani applying makeup inside a hall of mirrors. It’s a stunning metaphor, of social media as distortions and refractions. And after Zola and Stefani come together inside the restaurant in profile, Bravo takes the lights down and then brings them back up, revealing them back inside that hall of mirrors. They turn and walk off together, vanishing into the fever dreamworld.

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