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A Stylish Take on the Faux DocuDrama
Why did I refer to this film as such, you ask? Maybe you didn't ask, but I'll tell you anyway. A24's Zola is a hyper-stylized look at a true story oddly based on a viral Twitter thread. When you see the film, it feels like one of those stories that is truly stranger than fiction - one that screams, "this should be a movie." Lo and behold, it became a movie. It's perhaps a story that, if not handled properly in the correct hands, could have easily faltered and face-planted. The film follows two women, Zola and Stefani who pole-dance to make ends meet and embark on a roadtrip to Florida with the hopes of making even more money at an allegedly superior gentleman's club that promises to be highly lucrative. What follows is a wild weekend filled with deception, hijinks, and possibly unreliable narrators.
The Unbelievable True Story
I have to use "true story" in somewhat loose terms. Of course, Zola, who narrates intermittently throughout the course of the story, is the most reliable of narrators, but details can get shady and even shadier once Stefani takes over (which also sets up some hilarious punchlines). Now, as stated, the true story is based on a viral Twitter thread by Zola herself, and she also consulted with the production team throughout to nail down the details. From the start, you want to trust Stefani as it's entirely from Zola's point of view, and she comes across as nice and well-intentioned. But, the veil of kindness can be quickly seen through as her fakeness and disingenuous nature comes to light. After they rake in the dough at the stripclub, the night quickly comes off the hinges and the descent into chaos ensues. What promised to be a lucrative night now turns into something Zola did not ask for, and we experience and learn it all through her eyes. I intend to avoid spoilers as best I can, so I will leave the rest up to your imagination. Or, you can simply just go see for yourself. I'm not sure if you'll be glad for it or not. But, I can promise that it will truly be...something.
The next strongest aspect of the film is the look and feel of it. The craft surrounding the film is glossy, stylish, and unorthodox. What I enjoyed the most is that the film is quite self-aware. It's almost told in a faux docudrama fashion - and what I mean by that is: the film, at times, will have Zola speaking to you directly as if she's telling the story to you. She wants to guide you almost every step of the way, just so that we're aware of the ridiculousness, but actually true nature of it. She also wants us to know that whatever Stefani does, she is NOT to be trusted. We are able to rely on Zola as she has no reason to lie to us, but Stefani has EVERY reason to. Going back to the stylized approach, the film has a glossiness to it, as I mentioned. It appears to have been shot on film, which is uncommon for a film of this type. Additionally, the way its shot is also quite unique, and the way the frame is occupied is done in a calculated way and has an intentionality to it. Another aspect I wanted to point out is that they made the uncinematic, cinematic. Much of it involves phone calls, texts, snapping photos, and social media; which, is completely uncinematic in my eyes. However, the production team behind this made sure to make it as cinematic as possible, which is something I appreciated about it.
The performances in this film are very important, as that is something you would want to nail, as opposed to screw up with a story like this. Taylour Paige, who portrays Zola, has a pointedness and an unabashed bluntness to her that really adds to the comic relief that is much needed in this often uncomfortable film. Her performance is so direct and so unapologetic, it was really quite refreshing. On the flip side of that coin, we have Riley Keough's portrayal of Stefani which is, in a word...ratchet? It's clear that this was intentional and most likely as accurate as humanly possible, given the real Zola's involvement on the production. The supporting cast is all great here as well, giving the ever necessary authenticity to this very grounded albeit omniscient storytelling. All of these performances work in tandem to give this a genuine, if not unflattering ensemble.
When all is said and done, it left me unsure of what I just watched. I'm still litigating whether or not this is a good thing. But one thing is for certain, this was absolutely a story deserving of an adaptation on the silver screen. The true story, whether embellished or not, is wild enough to be told on a grand enough scale to be seen by as many as possible. The portrayal of this ridiculously insane true story is done in an unorthodox way that was both effective and impressive. The performances are also true to the characters, entertaining, and amusing. When you put all of this together, we're left with an effective telling of a wild story that is efficient enough not waste our time and to educate us on what may have been misinterpreted or perhaps we're ignorant to.
Zola is an A24 film and is currently showing in theaters, where they are safely open, and in limited release.