Review: Zola (Sundance 2020)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Sundance banner joblo

PLOT: Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) while waitressing, and the two, who are both part-time strippers, immediately hit it off. Within twenty-four hours, they’re on their way to Florida for what’s supposed to be a weekend of stripping but takes a turn when Stefani’s “roommate” (Colman Domingo) and boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) get involved.

REVIEW: “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” This is the way an epic Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King began back in 2015, where she described an insane weekend she spent on the road with another stripper named Jessica (renamed Stefani for the film). It was so juicy that filmmaker Janicza Bravo sought out the rights to the thread, turned it into a screenplay and got it made into a movie that quickly became the talk of the town during this year’s Sundance. With A24 behind it, ZOLA looks to be a cult classic in the making, but it’s also the kind of divisive, addled film that will send some running for the exits once it hit theaters, while others will dub it a masterpiece.

riley keough taylour paige zola

Similar to SPRING BREAKERS (coincidently another A24 film), ZOLA has us follow around a gang of utterly vacuous characters as they raise hell over forty-eight hours. The fast-paced excess of it all is thoroughly in tune with the madcap story the real-life Zola told, so no one can deny writer-director Bravo hasn’t done the story justice. Certainly, here visual style is outstanding, with the neon look complimented by a terrific score by the great Mica Levi, while the editing keeps it moving along like a freight train. By the end of the ninety-minute running time, you’re exhausted – mirroring perhaps how Zola felt at the end of her road trip from hell.

The issue with ZOLA, which will be a deal-breaker for many, is that while justice has been done to the story, they’re all thoroughly unlikeable people so spending a whole film with them is a bit of a test. The acting is terrific – with Taylour Paige a real find as the titular character. However, whether or not you care about the pimping adventures of a stripper is on you as an audience. You either go with it – or you don’t.

Certainly no one can fault the craft, with Paige and Riley Keough all too real as social media addicts whose self-worth has a lot to do with being liked online and not much else. Keough’s probably got the tougher part, as at least Zola’s shown to be intelligent. Her Stefani is portrayed as almost an empty slate, just another body for her pimp – played by Colman Domingo in a ferocious turn – to exploit. She has very little inner life and it can’t be easy inhabiting such a character. Even her dumb boyfriend, played by “Succession”’s Nicholas Braun, has an arc. Stefani, on the other hand, is tougher to pin down, and Keough has to walk a fine line. Bravo never turns ZOLA into a straight-up comedy either, aiming more for character-driven chuckles than belly laughs. It’s probably too intense to be funny, but it’s a singular work – and likely the only way a story like this ever could have been authentically told.

Suffice to say, ZOLA isn’t for everyone. If you were riveted by Zola’s twitter thread, then you can be reasonably sure you’ll love the film, but if you couldn’t care less or lost interest after a few tweets, this is more of a mixed bag. Again though, no one can deny the craft that went into it, with all involved putting their heart and soul into this crazy slice of life that could easily become a time capsule for audiences to look back at years from now. I doubt any other movie this year will be as authentically “now” as ZOLA.




Viewer Ratings (0 reviews)

Add your rating


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.