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Zola review – stylish and freewheeling Florida road trip

Janicza Bravo’s exhilarating Riley Keough-starring crime comedy sets an impressive benchmark for films based on viral tweets

These days, it feels as though filmmakers have exhausted every avenue in search of inspiration. What could be left? Writer-director Janicza Bravo’s answer: a tweet. More accurately, a 148 tweet thread by A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King that begins: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” It also serves as the first line of Bravo’s bold and brazen Zola.

A wild experience from start to finish, Zola begins with the chance meeting of Zola (Taylour Paige), a Detroit waitress, and Stefani (Riley Keough), a diner. Instantly, they’re friends and it isn’t long before Zola is following Stefani on an impromptu road trip to Florida. Cue a razor-sharp and visually stylish odyssey through nightclubs and seedy penthouses on a seductive weekend that results in a crazy and unforgettable ride.

Hitting the road, the two women are joined by Stefani’s sickeningly anxious boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and X (Colman Domingo), who's introduced as Stefani’s roommate. In the driver’s seat of the car, X is also in charge of their nightly plans which begin at a strip club before X is revealed as Stefani’s pimp and the two women find themselves in a luxury penthouse suite for sex work they’ve not agreed to.

Co-written with Jeremy O. Harris, Zola moves at an unforgivingly rapid pace. Its beats are relentless while trouble is always in the periphery, whether it be a gun, a lying friend, or a confederate flag flapping in the blue sky above.

While Zola grows increasingly abrasive and electric, delving deeper into this sinister and unexpected journey, one unchanging presence is Taylour Paige’s captivating performance. Her wise but somewhat unreliable narration articulates the points of distrust that become increasingly frequent between her and Stefani. Yet as chaos erupts around her, it's Paige's face that Bravo’s camera comes to rest on. Taking in the surrounding palaver, she repeatedly grounds this story in its painful reality while Stefani exposes the sinister power of a white woman's tears.

Zola's relationship with sound is also fascinating, largely thanks to Mica Levi’s genius score, whose previous work on Monos, Jackie and Under the Skin has established them as one of modern cinema's great composers. In Zola, audio becomes essential adjacent to the soundtrack with the playful integration of phone notifications; a swoosh of a sent text and a bird chirp when a tweet is fired off is harmoniously integrated. In one scene, Zola turns down her phone volume and the conversation in the room quietens to silence. These subtle but effective touches help weave in the presence of social media in a way that’s original but not overly intruding.

In a honed ninety minutes, the only complaint is that Zola feels like it’s over too soon. Exhilarating and heart-racing, this audaciously cinematic adaptation of a key viral moment sets the benchmark for future films about modern internet culture.

Zola screened at the Sundance Film Festival London 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 6 August.

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