Riley Keough and Taylour Paige appear in Zola by Janicza Bravo, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Anna Kooris. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

In 2015, Aziah “Zola” King hit Twitter with a 148-tweet post recounting a wild story about her experiences on a trip with a stripper named Stefani. This massive post caught the attention of Rolling Stone’s David Kushner whose subsequent piece gained further notoriety and attention from Hollywood filmmakers. Well, after one attempt at an adaptation with James Franco helming was ceased, it would be director Janicza Bravo who would recreate this insane story for the big screen. With @Zola, Bravo impresses wonderfully, bringing to it an incredible sense of style, while beautifully blending humor with the ugly and dark realities associated with the story. Actors Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are absolutely dazzling as the chief protagonists of this gonzo journey.

Paige stars as the titular Zola, a Detroit waitress who, on one bizarre day, encounters Stefani (Keough) at her restaurant. After an unusual,, but quite amiable, conversation, the two bond instantly. Stefani ultimately proposes that the two of them should take a road trip to Florida where they can score some serious money working at a strip club. Thinking that she could use the easy money, Zola agrees to meet up with Stefani and her boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun). However, when she gets into the car, she discovers that the driver is a seemingly sketchy and duplicitous character (Colman Domingo) who appears to be in charge of their trip. After they have arrived in Florida, and manage to make some decent money at the club, Zola realizes that Stefani’s driver is her pimp and that he has other plans to make even more money while they are there.

Writer/director Bravo, who co-wrote the movie with Jeremy O. Harris, has done some exceptional filmmaking in developing this crazy story into a movie that feels true and genuine to Zola’s voice. Because it is based on tweets that clearly have Zola’s style and manner of speaking, Bravo and Harris have a cognizant comprehension for the language and utilize this understanding tremendously in the script. As a director, Bravo impresses as her visual and aural sensibilities beautifully recreate the film and story’s origins through social media and modern technology. I must also give some proper credit to editor Joy McMillon and the sound department who add such wonderful touches to the experience. I also marveled at the amazing score by Mica Levi whose sublime work cannot be ignored whatsoever.

Of course, this movie would not be as amazing as it is without the excellent cast that it has. As Zola, Taylour Paige may resign herself to portraying the least interesting character in the film, but that is not to say her presence is not formidable and deniable. Zola serves as the voice of wisdom, strength, and reason in this wild story, and Paige beautifully embodies these qualities. Also praiseworthy is Nicholas Braun who portrays the exact antithesis of Zola’s character in Derek.

Derek is the stupid and weak boyfriend who honestly has no place in this savage territory, but still clings to his girlfriend Stefani, despite his abhorence to her line of work and trouble that often follows. As Stefani’s pimp, Colman Domingo is revelatory. The actor brings an insane amount of facets that make the character so much more bewildering that leaves the audience craving to know what his backstory is. The absolute standout of the film has to be Riley Keough, who, as Stefani, is the most intriguing and entertaining character of the film. Stefani has a definitely method to the madness and Keough stuns as she has such an incredible grasp of the character, her multiple facets, and what makes her tick.

@Zola is one of those rare films which amazes and exasperates , but still amuses and entertains with the bizarre events it presents . It truly is a wonderful showcase for director Janicza Bravo and her talents, and I do sincerely wish that this movie leads to her achieving even greater success with future projects.

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