Zola

Remember that intense, uncomfortable, and weirdly funny scene in Boogie Nights with Alfred Molina listening to Night Ranger and playing with firecrackers? Well, Zola is like ninety minutes of that exact same vibe. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first movie based on a Twitter thread. I remember reading A'Ziah King's viral tweetstorm at the time and being spellbound. Of course, it's debatable how much of the tale is true, given that anyone can lie about anything. Regardless of whether it's 100% true or 10%, the movie is a wild ride that makes you feel a range of different emotions all at once.

Taylour Paige (Boogie) plays Zola, a young waitress who strips on the side. One evening, she waits on Stefani (Riley Keough), an unapologetically vulgar woman, also a stripper, who talks like that "cash me outside" girl. They hit it off. Then, despite not really knowing each other, Stefani invites Zola to come with her, her boyfriend Derreck (Nicholas Braun), and her roommate X (Colman Domingo) to Tampa, Florida, where she thinks they can earn a few thousand dollars over a weekend by taking part in the local strip scene. The situation seems a little weird, but Zola needs the money and figures it's worth a shot.

Once they arrive in the Sunshine State, uncomfortable truths come out. Stefani isn't just a stripper, she's a prostitute, and X is her pimp, not her roomie. Worse, because she came on the trip, X expects Zola to start hooking, too. If you read the Twitter thread or the Rolling Stone story about it, you know what happens next. If not, well, it involves sex trafficking and you may get whiplash from all the unexpected twists and turns.

What kind of a movie is Zola? At times, it's very funny, which you might not expect given the subject matter. Some of the laughs come from Zola's bemused reactions to the increasing insanity she finds herself in. Others are courtesy of Stefani, who has a humorously enthusiastic attitude toward her profession. She's not just sex-positive, she's sex-extremely-positive. Other times, the film is kind of sad. Derrick, for example, is a dim bulb, yet you can't help feeling his pain when he realizes his girlfriend is out there having sex with random guys.

By the third act, Zola proves downright intense as it becomes clear X is going to leverage his power. He puts Zola and Stefani into situations that are more and more dangerous for them, and more and more lucrative for him. One of the most harrowing sequences finds the women showing up for what turns out to be a planned gang bang organized by a bunch of shady-looking – and very muscular – dudes. A later confrontation in a hotel room between all four main characters and two armed men is tense enough to make you hold your breath until it's over.

Obviously, the material here earns the picture a very hard R rating. It works because of the strong performances. Paige and Keough are superb, bringing their characters vividly to life. Keough, in particular, has a tough job, as Stefani is the kind of person who's almost a caricature. The actress makes her larger-than-life personality authentic. Domingo provides effective supporting work as the volatile pimp. All of the stars collaborate beautifully in service of a story that takes an unflinching look at the ins and outs of sex trafficking.

Director Janicza Bravo infuses the movie with a social media-savvy style that includes a sequence shot like an Instagram video, as well as the frequent Twitter notification ping on the soundtrack to indicate tweet-worthy moments from Zola's experience. Easily offended viewers might want to steer clear due to the graphic content. Adventurous viewers, on the other hand, will find a captivating, electrifying film that lingers in the mind when it's over.


out of four

Zola is rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.