There are a lot ways to describe “Zola,” the scandalously intoxicating mad-dog erotic-underworld drama with a title that doesn’t tell you much about it. It’s a true story so extravagant it feels like it must have been made up. It’s a mini volcano of sex and violence and danger and deception. It’s a close-to-the-bone portrait of women who work in the sex industry. It’s a youthquake as real as “American Honey.” It’s a piece of pure filmmaking bravura.
The movie first played at Sundance in 2020 (that’s right, a year-and-a-half ago), and the reason it’s just coming out now is that it’s one of the rare independent films that was treated by its distributor — in this case, A24 — as a made-for-the-big-screen jewel, like “No Time to Die” or “West Side Story,” whose release would have to wait until we could start to see the post-pandemic theatrical landscape. (The other Sundance sensations of 2020, “Promising Young Woman” and “Minari,” were released on streaming platforms in time for last year’s Oscar race.) “Zola” opened in theaters on June 30, and when you see it, you’ll know why it’s this year’s Fourth of July wild card. The movie, in its heady and original way, is a smashing entertainment that’s as American as apple pie. But unlike “F9” or “The Final Purge” or “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” it’s a holiday movie that takes you someplace you’ve never been. Here’s why I urge you to seek it out.
1. It’s a hypnotic walk on the wild side. Most of the film’s publicity has centered around the fact that it’s based on a tweetstorm: a chain of 148 messages by A’Ziah “Zola” Wells (now King) that spilled out on Twitter on Oct. 27, 2015. King told the story of what was happening to her in a driven, at times all-caps frenzy of existential confession, and her tale went viral because it was a hair-trigger psychodrama delivered in bursts of desperate fury. What the movie preserves from that is the wide-eyed, what-in-God’s-name-is-going-to-happen-next? crazed reality of it all, which elevates King’s experience into a kind of diary-of-an-exotic-dancer odyssey gone film noir. The film’s tone is never less than authentic, but it carries you along like a midnight roller-coaster of sleaze. Zola, the film’s center of gravity, played with a riveting sharp-witted force by Taylour Paige, just wants to leave her boyfriend for a couple of days, go down to Tampa, and make some money dancing. But as the plan unravels, quite spectacularly, the audience finds itself hitched to a ride of fear, ingenuity and survival.
2. A star filmmaker is born. The film’s director and co-writer, Janicza Bravo, has worked mostly in television, but she’s made one previous feature (the audacious experimental Sundance movie “Lemon”), and she infuses “Zola” with the kind of danger and excitement we associate with vintage Scorsese or the Paul Thomas Anderson of “Boogie Nights.” In the opening shots, Zola and the woman who lures her into the trip, Stefani (Riley Keough), are applying makeup and staring into paneled mirrors, but the only sound we hear is playful mock-innocent harp music that creates an odd, dreamy swell around them. Already, the characters have a quality of mystery, which is the thing that’s been leaking out of our cinema. (You could watch the 25 top-grossing movies of the year and not experience a moment of mystery.) That quality persists as Bravo digs into these personalities, casting a spell out of how they perform for their customers, perform for one another, and perform for those who would threaten their lives.
Their faces and bodies are on display, but their souls are under wraps, and Bravo’s camera hovers in the space around them. She crafts one hypnotic sequence after another: the teasingly ambiguous rapid-fire meeting of Zola, who’s working as a waitress at Hooter’s, and Stefani, the two of whom get locked into a mock-meet-cute “love” vibe; the ride down to Florida in a Jeep Cherokee driven by the imperious X (Colman Domingo), a journey that starts out boisterous but is shaded with vibrations of the sinister; the brilliantly edited sequence in a hotel room where Stefani has been ordered to turn tricks, and Zola — though she’s having none of that — turns the tables because she alone sees the value (and corruption) of what they’re selling; the gonzo showdown in the apartment of the not-nearly-as-nice-as-we-thought Dion (Jason Mitchell), a scene as charged as the firecracker climax of “Boogie Nights.” Some of “Zola” is scary, some of it is funny, but Bravo makes every moment so alive that it leaves the audience tingling.
3. The acting is killer. The first actor who hits you is Riley Keough as Stefani, whose entire personality is a hip-hop minstrel-show put-on. You may think you’ve seen a performance like this one before — like, say, what James Franco did in “Spring Breakers” (and, in fact, Franco was at one point set to direct this movie). But that was a witty lark. Keough’s Stefani, with her childish but grotesque devotion to the “street” fantasy in her head, is a performance at once lighter and more jaw-dropping — she etches an entire way of being around a vacant soul, turning Stefani into a treacherous dim bulb who has no self-knowledge because she barely has a self to know. Taylour Paige, as Zola, is Stefani’s opposite number, a wary warrior who uses her words sparingly, but as weapons. She’s drawn to, yet sees right through, this white girl who could never be her sister, and Paige acts with eyes that are like moral sensors. Nicholas Braun plays Stefani’s boyfriend as an exquisitely oblivious dolt, and Colman Domingo, as the hateful, manipulative, chameleonic X (who acquires a Jamaican accent when he’s angry), gives the most revealing performance as a pimp since Morgan Freeman in “Street Smart.”
4. It’s the rare movie that understands the sex industry from the inside. Is just about every drama that deals with the sex industry on some level a work of exploitation? You could make that case — not because the films are trying to be exploitative, but because when an exotic dancer or a prostitute appears on screen, she is nearly always pinned into an invisible box: a standard-issue perception of how she should be judged, defined, degraded, glorified. “Zola” is so unvarnished it makes a movie like “Hustlers” look like “Nine to Five,” but with the varnish gone we see the full vulnerable humanity of the characters, and the film is uncompromising in its presentation of the inner pulse of sex-industry work: its power and numbness, the dominion and anxiety wound into the nightly experience of it; the dank air of bartering that hangs over every cranny of a strip club; the tawdry grand illusion of feeding a selfie into an online swamp of sex for hire. At one point Stefani refers to the photo of herself she’s snapping as “she,” and that says it all: She’s selling a character who doesn’t exist.
5. Cinema feeds off this transcendent level of bad behavior. For 100 years, people have gone to the movies to see two things: extreme virtue… and the extreme lack of it. Good behavior… and bad behavior. The latter is there in everything from the gangster classics of the ’30s to the femme fatales of the ’40s to every terrific villain to the antiheroes of the New Hollywood (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dog Day Afternoon”) to the morally twisty spectacles of Oliver Stone to the pulp fictions of Quentin Tarantino. In recent times, though, it’s no exaggeration to say that virtue has been on the ascendance. “Zola” reminds you of what a catharsis it is to spend a movie reveling in the mishaps of characters who are no one’s idea of role models.
6. It’s got a head-spinning theme. What, in the end, is “Zola” about? It’s about the wages of sin and the perils of sex work. It’s about friendship and betrayal, money and survival. But what gives the film its resonance is that’s a disarming image of a world we all share now: one ruled by social-media artifice and free-floating financial desperation. It’s the portrait of a newly degraded, digital-souled society in which everything is commodified, and role-playing has become the coin of the realm. No matter how far removed you may think you are from these lives, the movie says that, inevitably, they reflect your life. “Zola,” a squalid knockout of an underground odyssey, is also a vision of something. Call it Hall-of-Mirrors America.