Zola – Sydney Film Festival Review

“Wanna Hear A Story About Why Me And This B**ch Here Fell Out?”

The opening line to Janicza Bravo’s Zola immediately sets the tone for this wild ride of a film and yet nothing could prepare me for what was about to follow. Based on a series of 148 tweets from A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King, Zola is the first adaptation of a Twitter thread and does not disappoint. To read the original set of tweets you can go to this link, but I would wait until after watching the film because a lot of the suspense will be ruined otherwise and like Zola says…

“It’s kind of long but full of suspense”

Zola, 2021

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 Zola is the tale of Aziah “Zola” Wells, an exotic dancer whos glamourous road trip to dance in Florida turns into a crazy adventure with an idiot boyfriend, a pimp, and some Tampa gangsters. The chaotic nature of the story is depicted accurately with fast cuts, messy dialogue, and various explicit montages that when the credits rolled, I was left with a sense of relief that the rollercoaster was finally over. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the ride while I was on it.

Director Janicza Bravo

The characters whilst almost caricatures still managed to come off believable channelling those key factors we come to recognise in the stereotypes of the people they portrayed. Taylour Paige was a standout as the title role, Riley Keough was suitably ditzy as her friend Stefani, Colman Domingo equally intimidating as pimp X, and Nick Braun as the idiot boyfriend was particularly on point with his comic delivery. Overall, the cast worked exceptionally hard to tell such a crazy story in a way that was both unbelievable and completely believable, side splitting funny and face droppingly serious.

As a film based heavily on content pulled direct from the internet Bravo introduced elements of buzzing notification sounds throughout the film which are used both as comedically timed interludes between dialogue and as a constant reminder of the source material. She also introduced an innovative way to portray a text message conversation that didn’t involve those on-screen text boxes for once. Using the camera as the point of view from the phone closing the actor in a close-up box and having them articulate the messages they were typing out loud was a refreshing take on something we are seeing more commonly in modern cinema. It allowed for the intention behind the text to come out which as we learn is integral to the storytelling. In general, the cinematography by Ari Wegner adds to the chaotic nature of the story with some very mind bending angles the overall neon aesthetic feels like you are riding a kind of high all the way from start to finish.

Colman Domingo stars as “X” in director Janicza Bravo’s ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Cr. Anna Kooris / A24 Films

I heard Bravo discuss in an interview that she wanted the film to exist in a space where there was no judgement. Obviously covering the topic of sex work Zola ran the risk of running into exploitation territory, but I can confidently say that Bravo achieved her aim. We even, refreshingly, get an equal amount of male and female nudity, which I wouldn’t want to solely put on the fact that the film has a female director but it did feel like in a story that focuses on work that is all about servicing the male gaze having a female perspective gave it a realistic edge that successfully avoided objectifying either gender.

As a comedy it succeeds. As an adaptation of a series of tweets it succeeds. As a showcase of the immense talent of this cast and crew it succeeds. Zola is the best possible blend of great performances, strong direction, clear artistic vision, and quality execution achieving a comedy that still somehow had a subtle message around a serious topic. I was thoroughly on the edge of my seat and laughing both in humour and sometimes awkward un-comfortability. It wasn’t particularly long as far as films go but darn it sure was full of suspense.

All sessions at Sydney Film Festival have sold out but you can watch Zola on Amazon Prime and see it in Aussie cinemas from November 18th 2021

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