The Reel Review
“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?” With that, the adventures of Zola, a Detroit stripper bound for Florida with a girl she just met, begins, in this dark comedy starring Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Riley Keough (The Lodge). Zola is based on 148 tweets written by Detroit waitress A’Ziah “Zola” Wells (now King), describing her harrowing trip to Tampa in October 2015. The tweets went viral, and Rolling Stone magazine published her crazy story a month later.
The acting in Zola is shockingly raw, from Paige’s portrait of the stripper trying to save herself from increasingly dangerous scenarios, Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) as the abusive manager/pimp, and Keough as the over-the-top ho-bag Stefani, rocking a culturally appropriated “blaccent.” (Carmen Electra’s was still funnier in 2005’s Dirty Love). Nicholas Braun (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) is Stefani’s hapless, moronic boyfriend. Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo (Them, Mrs. America) uses lots of filtered lenses, groovy, low grade production techniques and a quirky score to capture the seedy underbelly of Tampa’s notoriously vast adult entertainment scene. But for all its sex, violence and LOTS of full frontal male nudity, the absence of illegal drugs in Zola is a curious, oddly sanitized choice given the subject matter.
Zola will look familiar to those who’ve seen the 2019 Adam Sandler crime thriller Uncut Gems and/or Harmony Korine’s 2012 crime drama Spring Breakers. And while Zola is interesting in a “can’t look away from the train wreck” sort of way, there just is no real story. It’s more a continued sensory experience – a lot of flash without a point, ultimately unable to live up to its promising premise.
• James Franco (Spring Breakers) was originally set to direct, produce and star in the film until he was accused of sexual harassment prior to production in Tampa, Florida in 2018.
• Taylour Paige went undercover as a real stripper in a real strip club for a month to prepare for her role, going by the names Lola, and later, Zo.
• The manager/pimp that was the basis for Colman Domingo’s character is still in prison for sexual assault, sex trafficking, battery and other crimes.