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Janicza Bravo’s ‘Zola’ is a wild ride

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige star in “Zola.”  (Anna Kooris/A24 Films)
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige star in “Zola.” (Anna Kooris/A24 Films)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

In the eighth century, Homer wrote the epic poem “The Odyssey,” and in 2015, a woman named A’Ziah “Zola” King took to Twitter to share her own incredible saga. In a 148-tweet thread, she described a trip to Florida that she took with a new friend in a tale of strip clubs and sex work arguably more harrowing than the journey of Odysseus.

“The Story,” as it came to be known, instantly went viral. A feature in Rolling Stone by David Kushner followed, and Hollywood types soon were haggling over the rights to capture this lightning-in-a-bottle moment.

The film, “Zola,” arriving on screens six years later and directed by Janicza Bravo, is a delightfully dark and funny cinematic imagining of Zola’s epic. And, most importantly, it preserves and maintains the most crucial element of King’s story: her perspective and voice.

Bravo, who co-wrote the film with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, has a preternatural sense for cinematic textures, soundscapes and tempos; she applies her sensibility to this tale rooted in smartphone culture. The dialogue is informed by text and Twitter linguistics, and dramatic beats are driven by and delivered via phone.

Digital dings, whistles and vibrations make up a jittery sonic blanket that overlays Bravo’s visual style of composed static shots and slow zooms, with bodies that move into and around the frame. The sound design and Mica Levi’s score offer a sense of rhythm and whimsy to the film, which deftly rides the line between menacing and absurd.

Using Helvetica font for time stamps and title cards, Bravo refers to the text’s digital origins while creating a sense of urgency and impending doom underscored by a motif of shots barreling down the highway in Tampa.

Zola (Taylour Paige) met Stefani (Riley Keough) only a few days earlier waiting tables. When Stefani invites Zola to dance at a strip club in Florida, she jumps at the chance, and right into a black Mercedes G-Wagon belonging to Stefani’s “roommate” (Colman Domingo), with Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), along for the ride.

After one brief, gloriously euphoric moment, the bloom is almost immediately off the road-trip rose, as Zola realizes she’s made a terrible mistake joining the obnoxious and shifty Stefani. Paige has the gift of an icy stare that Bravo puts to good use: the annoyance that Zola feels is palpable.

But this isn’t just about being stuck on a trip with someone you despise as the weekend jaunt devolves into chaos. Stefani’s roommate is her pimp, and he expects the girls to work, not just the pole. Zola is too confident and self-possessed to be pushed into sex work by a stranger, but she stays with Stefani in a sisterly attempt at protection and solidarity and ultimately becomes something of a madam herself.

“Zola” wouldn’t work without the cast, who are game for anything that King, Bravo and Harris throw their way. Domingo is unsurprisingly fantastic, code-switching between smooth talk and a West Indian accent when necessary; Braun takes all of Derrek’s humiliation on the chin. But the film belongs to the women.

This is undoubtedly a star-making turn for the stunning Paige, who has a magnetic screen presence, alternating between placid scrutiny and explosive outbursts. Keough once again proves she is unmatched when it comes to channeling a very specific type of white American woman.

Her work with accents and mannerisms is masterly. She is over the top, but this is a film about storytelling with its attendant authorial exaggerations. This is highlighted when “Zola” very briefly swaps to Stefani’s perspective, based on a real Reddit post that was published days after King’s Twitter yarn.

Zola’s authorship and Bravo’s respect for her storytelling make “Zola” a wholly original experience. It’s a brutally honest account of sex work, often dangerous and infrequently sexy, punctuated with Zola’s one-liners, observations and recounting of laugh-out-loud moments.

It’s a refreshing perspective that Bravo has put care into preserving on the screen because it’s what King and her wild story deserves.

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