Zola movie review & film summary (2021)

Bravo’s sensitivity to atmosphere is everywhere apparent. A huge liquor store transforms into a surreal dreamspace, a posh hotel lobby echoes with an emptiness almost ominous, Zola, wearing a canary-yellow bikini, stands on a balcony, surrounded by the blue of night, a solitary lonely figure snatching some solitude from the craziness. There are repeat shots of dark highways, blurry stoplights, freeways and backroads, as the women are driven around Florida for their assignments, and these “road” sequences are lonely, painterly, beautiful. Zola is an experienced woman but there is an aspect to all of this reminiscent of Alice going through the looking glass. Mirrors dominate, and this is not just a facile symbolic nod, but a serious thematic choice. In one mirror sequence, the two women get ready together for their night out, putting on makeup side by side, as the mirrors proliferate their reflections, the two of them lost in a trance of self-absorption. (There’s a similar sequence in “Scandal,” the 1989 film about the Profumo affair, when Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Bridget Fonda get themselves ready for a party, in a daze of autoeroticism.) There’s another sequence where Zola’s image is multiplied across the screen five times over, as she murmurs, “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” When Stefani interjects her own side of the story (as actually happened, the real-life counterpart taking to Reddit to defend herself), there’s an entire tonal shift, as well as a color-scheme shift: Stefani’s world is all pink-cupcake-hues, her braids now replaced by a “Vertigo“-style updo, all classy and victimized, pulling white-woman rank on Zola, whom she claims got her into this mess.

Riley Keough is way, way out on a limb with her performance of this grotesque woman, a liar, a user, not in any way “likable” but with enough infectious charm it makes sense why Zola was initially seduced (because it was a seduction). Paige is the center of the film, though, and she holds it with a powerful grounded sense of her own worth and an insistence on remaining sane, despite the lunacy of everyone around her. Paige speaks worlds with her eyes, and it’s a joy to watch her change tack on a dime (see her quicksilver no-nonsense attitude when she realizes Stefani is being taken advantage of by X). Both Domingo and Braun give funny broad performances, and X’s intermittent African accent, which comes out only when he’s angry, is an ongoing joke.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of “Zola” is Bravo’s refusal to shy away from one of the most challenging qualities to portray in film (or anywhere else, for that matter, especially on social media): ambivalence. What is the film’s attitude towards the events onscreen? What is the film’s attitude towards sex work? Towards X? Towards Stefani? There are times when it seems cut-and dried. There are other times when it’s not so clear. The scenes of the two women stripping are luscious and playful, but then there’s the moment when a client tips Zola, murmuring that she looks like Whoopi Goldberg. The pleasure is real but so is the disgust. The sex work scenes have distressing elements, but they are also introduced by shots of a diverse array of penises. Heart emojis flower over the biggest specimen. It’s not that it’s complicated so much that it’s ambivalent. Ambivalence is such a common experience to most human beings, and yet it’s treated as a huge no-no in contemporary storytelling. People like their villains clear-cut and they like bad behavior to be signaled as “bad” with huge neon arrows. Bravo isn’t interested in that kind of simplified binary, and it’s the stronger film for it.

The only disappointment in all this dazzling creativity is that the ending feels almost cut off in mid-sentence. But that’s a quibble. This is the kind of film that tells its story well while simultaneously showing the joy of the creative act, in Bravo’s filmmaking, yes, but also in Zola’s decision to take to Twitter and tell her story in the first place. A voice like hers doesn’t come along every day.

In theaters now. 

You can view the original article HERE.

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