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.
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.