Reel Reviews | Zola

by Tim Gordon

The outrageous road-trip tale of an unsuspecting woman drawn into the sordid world of prostitution in the daring debut film from a new bold storyteller, Janicza Bravo in the dark comedy, Zola.

Based on an infamous 148-tweet Twitter thread in which Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) meets a sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough) at a restaurant where Zola waitresses, the two immediately bond over pole dancing. What starts off as an innocent harless road trip turns into a dark, twisted test of wills that will pit the two young ladies against each other as tries to survive in twisted world of an overbearing unpredictable pimp, simply called “X” (Colman Domingo).

It begins so innocent when Zola crosses paths with a energetic and personable young woman, Stefani. If you closed your eyes, Stefani has the cadence and lingo of a “sistah,” which while initially off-putting to Zola, she captures a glimmer of adventure in her eyes that draws her closer to the “shady” Stefani over her objections.

Soon Stefani feeds Zola tales of big money working out of town which results in her leaving Detroit for a quick trip to Florida to spend some time working in a strip club. Before they can leave “the D,” there are warning bells going off in Zola’s head as she witnesses unsettling behavior from her friend’s two travel companions. wo new traveling companions, Let’s just say that it gets progressively worse upon their arrival in the State.

Taylour Paige in Zola.

Paige infuses Zola with an earthy earnest that despite a affable exterior belies someone who sticks to her convictions. As the duplicitous Stefani displays her true intentions, Zola remains unbothered and refuses to given in to either her or the intimidating X. Over the course of the past year, Paige has established herself with several winning performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Boogie, both in supporting roles but her work in this small indie favorite may be the performance that finally opens everyone’s eyes to her untapped talent.

Domingo, who also co-starred opposite Page in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays the most fearsome guerilla pimp this side of Morgan Freeman breakout performance as Fast Black in 1987’s Street Smart. Charming one minute, but like a ticking time bomb when he feels like he is disrespected or neglected, Domingo shows another side to his impressive acting arsenal further expanding his opportunities for prime roles.

The story that unspooled could easily have veered into caricature but to director Janicza Bravo’s watchful eye she uses the unsavory behavior of Stefani to show just how quick, as well as vulnerable of a situation one could find themselves in if they make the wrong choices. Bravo takes Zola’s journey and instead of a sad cautionary tale, shows the strength of character, conviction and conscious that define her as a strong heroine. “Bravo” to this storyteller as well as her breakout star in her most convincing role to date.

Grade: B-