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Review: Zola – “A wild and thrilling sleazy and sketchy ride”

Directed by Janicza Bravo (‘Lemon’) and written by Bravo with Jeremy O. Harris (‘#Nightstrife), ‘Zola’ is based on the infamous viral Twitter thread unleashed on the world by A’Ziah-Monae ‘@_zolarmoon’ King and stars Taylour Paige (‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’), Riley Keough (‘Mad Max: Fury Road’), Nicholas Braun (‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’) and Colman Domingo (‘Candyman’).

Zola (Paige) is waitressing in a diner when she meets Stefani (Keough). Through a sort of stripper secret handshake, the pair both realise that they dance at the same time as they also realise they are both hot for each other. After a blinding night out where the pair have a lot of fun and make a lot of money together, Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida to dance and rake in even more money.

Excited and a little blinded by how besotted she is with her new friend, Zola accepts instantly. She is a bit weirded out when Stefani arrives to pick her up with her clueless boyfriend Derrek (Braun) and another intense dude whose name is a mystery (Domingo) in tow, but the ride down to Florida is a singing-along-to-Migos blast. It all very quickly turns sour though. ‘X’ is revealed to be Stefani’s pimp and the women have been brought to the Everglade State not to dance but to work as prostitutes under the threat of violence from ‘X’.

Now Zola must navigate a murky and dangerous world trying to protect herself and Stefani while, working as her new friend’s agent slash bodyguard, while also constantly being outraged at the levels to which she has been tricked and dropped right in it by Stefani. 

Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are both excellent throughout. Paige’s straight-man could be a thankless role but her reactions, quick thinking and adaptation to make it out of any situation make her a very easy hero to love, even if Stefani still gets all the best lines. 

As the wild card, Keough is having a blast. Her Stefani is absolutely off the rails — DGAF and DTF at all times — but the more we see and learn of her story and situation, the sadder we are for her. As badly as she may have screwed over Zola, her still being protective of her is easy to swallow as we feel the same way thanks to Keough’s likeable maniacal bratty performance.

Braun’s Derrek is a sad story too. A happy-go-lucky wannabe content creator who is also absolutely blinded by Stefani, Nicholas Braun takes what could be a laughable figure of fun on the page and shows us the pain and desperation underneath. Domingo’s ‘X’ could also have been one-note, but he and Bravo cleverly make us kind of like him at first before he reveals his true intentions in a truly chilling scene where both his accent and mask slip.

Full of characters you constantly swing back and forth on loving and hating, Bravo embraces this discombobulation, throwing us and them into scarier and weirder situations and taking us on a wild and thrilling sleazy and sketchy ride through Florida’s underbelly. This is turned up to 11 by her exciting stylistic flourishes, such as amusing onscreen graphics and social media signifiers, that are never overpowering but lend ‘Zola’ a standout visual excitement and immediacy.

‘Zola’ is released in the UK on the 6th of August.

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