Directed by Janicza Bravo

Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris

Envision the opposite of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. An enterprising black girl working a long graveyard shift with a shady-ass bitch she really don’t fuck with. An overbearing boyfriend is squished into the backseat, and the principal hoping to rue the day is a pimp with a gun. We ain’t singin’ Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoene,” we rappin’ Migos’ “Hannah Montana.” No Ferrari to get around town, just a pair of crystal clear stripper heels. Walk a mile in those shoes, then bask in the glory of @zola.

People used to turn blogs into books, or a podcast into a Netflix series. Now, we’ve hit the moment in our digital culture where reddit threads become feature films. @zola sets a golden standard that any ensuing tumblr or twitter feed will have to top. Fans of the initial Zola phenomenon will be curious to see how the action plays out on a grand scale, while the uninitiated can relish in a blindfolded backflip into the subterranean grind of sex work.

Many films that have been in the can since 2020 have had a hasty streaming release in the wake of covid-19, but the creators behind @zola remained steadfast that this piece of cinema must be consumed first by a room full of people sharing in a communal experience. Akin to The Crying Game or Pulp Fiction, Zola breaks a cherry, inviting mixed company to congregate at the neighborhood arthouse and experience an urban nightmare of vice, terror, and an existential fear of what the fuck is coming next? 

Zola (Taylour Paige) waits tables at a greasy spoon. Breasts like fuji apples blossom out of her cowgirl top, raking in more tips and attention than her customer service ever will. Stefani (Riley Keough) takes immediate notice, with her sugar daddy sitting across the booth. Zola breaks the fourth wall to ask, You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense. Stefani’s a stripper and knows she can make some money with this honey. 

You dance? 

After exchanging numbers, Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Tampa where they can make thousands of bucks in one night. Zola agrees, sleeps with her boyfriend to calm his nerves, then meets up with Stefani. Her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and a different sugar daddy, X (Colman Domingo), are in tow. A tiktok sing-a-long busts out of the sunroof and lights the fuse for an ensuing dumpster fire blazing down the interstate, southward to oblivion.

A cabal of strippers, ugly penises, and gangbangers await in Tampa. 

The night ahead is blessed by the mother superior stripper (Ts Madison) in one of the more memorable onscreen prayers ever intoned. The good God above defers. Zola is more annoyed than pissed when pole dancing is a bust, and Stefani turns out to be a low-rent prostitute. Derrek waits at a fleabag motel, wondering where his girlfriend is, and befriends a loitering local. X is revealed as Stefani’s pimp. Only when Zola and Stefani are left on their own in a two-star hotel room with a line of men waiting outside does the story and its titular protagonist reveal themselves. Zola discovers that X is only charging $500 per head, and finally loses her cool with Stefani. Pussy is worth thousands! Zola reminds her. The door opens, paying customers enter, and the fourth wall comes down again: When they start fuckin, it was gross.

Best to not know anything else before experiencing the twisted magnificence of @zola for yourself.

The @zola aesthetic lingers in dark rooms and dirty streets, washed and tye-dyed in neon lights and the skinny, squirrelly fonts of the 1980s. Director Janicza Bravo captures the spectacle through an old iPhone lens clouded by crack smoke. The film and its characters persist and manage to glow through the grime. Mica Levi’s original score underpins these images with vibraphones, harps, and arpeggiators flying in and out of each other. The sparse booms and claps of an 808 come and go, tapping along to a lonely glockenspiel. Zola never fails to catch the beat, snatch Stefani’s weave, then drag her through Tampa.

Amongst all the underworld angst and treachery, Nicholas Braun provides comedic relief at every turn. If you’re a fan of his work as the hapless Greg in HBO’s Succession, @zola is required viewing. Taylour Paige and Riley Keough forge a tempestuous sisterhood and blur the lines between satire and tragedy, friends and enemies, sex and survival. This shared experience harkens laughter, fear, and desperation that grows by the minute. As the ferocious X, Colman Domingo harnesses the threat of every other man on the screen, lusting and looking to swallow up Zola and Stefani. Sophie Hall rounds out the cast as the silent stooge Baybe, stealing every scene she enters.

@zola runs a mere eighty-six minutes, barely pausing for a breath, leaving a sense of longing for just one more lap dance. Zola and Stefani exist within a vacuum. Their journeys to the here and now remain untold, with @zola providing just a brief peek through the glory hole at their reality. Their time is precious and it’s always running out. Whether you stream @zola from your couch, or you watch it in a room full of strangers squirming in their seat – the film challenges the viewer to feel every twinge of Zola’s pain, absorb every drop of her wisdom, and cheer on her every instance of courage. 

Uncomfortable, exhilarating, and downright charming – it’s impossible to look away from this dusty gem. Even barbarians will blush.

@zola is now in theaters and streaming via multiple platforms.

A Star is Born

For the past ten years, Lady Gaga has been hellbent on proving that she is not the entertainer you think she is. Love or hate Gaga — her appearance, her music, and her personality has been impossible to pin down. Even her collaborators have run the gamut from R. Kelly to Tony Bennett. Now, she’s set to conquer another medium with another partner in crime, Bradley Cooper.

Cooper has arguably spent more time genre-jumping than Gaga since he emerged from Hollywood oblivion in 2005 as the alwayson yuppie, Sack Lodge, in Wedding Crashers. Cooper later broke into mainstream stardom with The Hangover trilogy and then parlayed that comedic notoriety into Best Actor Oscar nominations for his roles in American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper has little left to prove as a Hollywood leading man, yet seems intent on piecing together a career arc that could one day match the virtuosity of Tom Hanks.

Earlier this year, Cooper reprised his role as Rocket Raccoon for the third time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, Cooper is merely providing the voice-over for a cute CGI comic book character, but Cooper is so good at inhabiting this personality that it takes me out of the moment trying to reconcile the voice to his now very-familiar face. A similar feeling took over when I first saw the trailer for Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born.

I was enthralled by the camera angles and the curated snippets of the film, and again, my brain struggled to make connections: “Wait, that’s Bradley Cooper in the lead? And he directed this? Is that really him singing and playing guitar? Wait, is that Lady Gaga?” The trailer advertised a powerhouse movie of romance, tragedy, music, and schmaltzy charm. Cooper’s film ultimately delivers on every point.

Cooper crafts two very separate worlds in the opening moments of A Star is Born, then slams them together and lets the dust settle throughout the film. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a barrel-aged, road-tested blues rocker that has Coachella crowds eating out of his hand. Jackson’s world is a bubble of privilege and vice, only to be pierced by Ally, played by Lady Gaga. Ally lives with her dad, works at a restaurant, and performs at a drag bar while she fine-tunes her musical chops. Jackson enters the bar, mid-bender, and falls head over heels for her. By the end of the night, the two are sitting in a convenience store parking lot singing to each other. Sharing a love of song craft, possessing what the other doesn’t. He makes a living off his music, and she holds a grounded, sober view of the world at large. 

Together and separately, Cooper and Gaga weave steady doses of Americana and modern pop  throughout the drama, offering three-minute ditties that can please both snooty hipsters, die-hard fans of The Voice, and everyone in between. The accompanying soundtrack is as undeniable as the film, expounding Gaga’s dependable sensibilities across folk and bubblegum pop, and highlighting Cooper’s musical talents that materialized out of nowhere as he developed the role and his film. Acting is pretending, but with a guitar in hand and crooning into a microphone, Cooper has never felt so natural on the screen.

Cooper’s trademark suave demeanor is buried under a cowboy hat, long hair and a beard, a gravely voice, and weary eyes, while Gaga is a stranger without a traveling circus around her. By unplugging and stripping down, Gaga has never been more relatable as an artist who is insecure about her appearance, her musical abilities, and how they could ever fit into the big, bad music industry. For all of Ally’s doubts, Jackson has her by both hands, pulling her into the spotlight. The buzz of love throttles the first half of the film — Jackson is smitten with something besides booze, and Ally comes into her own. Soon enough, Ally has a major label contract, a hot shot agent, and a musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live.

Jealousy and success are at odds with the heat of passion in the back half of the film. When all else fails, Jackson and Ally hatch a shotgun wedding to claim each other from the rest of the world, only complicating their relationship further. When all of the glitz, glamour, and indulgence is stripped away, A Star is Born is the true test of any and every romance: a wrenching account of what love can survive, and what it can’t. 

Sam Elliott co-stars as Jackson’s road manager and brother, exposing the shortcomings of Cooper’s character and his inability to maintain healthy relationships. Jackson throws money at every problem, then tries to drink his denial away. Meanwhile, Ally sticks to her guns — keeping her father close, hiring all the right people, and refusing to give up on Jackson when everything and everyone tells her she definitely should.

Gaga is a consummate performer from beginning to end, but most endearing before her character seizes fortune and glory. Once Ally is at the top of the world, it feels a little too natural, a little too obvious. To see Gaga successfully portray humility and earnestness early on is to believe she can just about do anything. Cooper’s versatility speaks as many volumes, and the actor transcends his own being into another once more – embodying the talent, addiction, and presence of so many doomed rock stars that have preceded. The darkest of moments dosed with black humor and a shrug. In the skin of Jackson Maine, Cooper reminds us exactly why we put up with icons who are as entertaining as they are obtuse.

By the end of the film, Cooper and Gaga construct outsized personalities for their characters that are entirely secluded by the fruits of their labor. The viewer can only relate to both because Cooper’s direction never strays from these two converging yet separating paths. Aside from a premier cinematic experience, A Star is Born leaves viewers with existential dilemmas to address. How does success, passion, and vice effect us as individuals, and in loving relationships? Where do we draw the line with others and ourselves? When do we say enough? 

A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s first magnum opus — a big rock n’ roll gig drawing out every emotion possible from the audience. In the carefully placed moments of silence, Cooper invites us to stare into a mirror with Jackson and Ally as they question where true happiness, true contentedness can be found.