A hotel stick-up, an unstable boyfriend hurling himself dramatically off a balcony, pole-dancers speaking in tongues as they pray to Jesus to send them well-endowed black men with credit scores of 840; Janicza Bravo’s Zola flits nimbly between the revolting and the absurd, but as it slithers across Florida from hotel room to hotel room, the shallow voyeurism implicit in each shocking tableau starts to wear thin. Isn’t this wild? the film asks again and again. Can you believe this shit? Yet there’s a remove to the proceedings that often undercuts any sense of chaos or wildness, and Bravo seems reserved when it comes to her stars, who are often effectively backgrounded by long stretches of silence without close-ups or opportunities for non-verbal acting. Taylour Paige is fine if passive as the title character, but between a tame script and conservative directing, Riley Keough just can’t sell the nightmarish human tornado Stefani is so clearly supposed to be.
Colman Domingo is considerably livelier as Abegunde “X” Olawale, Stefani’s pimp and Zola’s abductor for the film’s whirlwind weekend, but the role is so one-dimensional it’s a wonder he can wring as much out of it as he does. The cast’s unlikely standout is Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Stefani’s whiny, faux-street, mentally unwell boyfriend. He manages to convey so much while frantically repeating “yo, yo, yo” to himself or laughing with obnoxious, childlike glee at YouTube videos that by the end of his first scene you feel like you could probably make some pretty devastatingly accurate guesses about his life and upbringing. In one particularly brutal sequence he vomits from sheer stress after Abegunde intimidates and humiliates him by revealing that a call-and-response affirmation of love Derrek shares with Stefani in fact originates with him. Braun spends the entire scene doing an incredible impression of a human pimple until finally, inevitably, he pops.
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Probably the best scene in the movie is a montage of Stefani’s johns showing up to the hotel room where Abegunde has sequestered her and Zola. Awful tattoos, receding hairlines, chinless, goggle-eyed faces and greasy skin — it’s a delightful parade of odd-looking Floridian men united only by their nearly palpable skeeziness, and around it is some solid connective tissue between Stefani and Zola. “Everything I do, I do for my baby,” Stefani, literally dressed as a child in preparation for a client, tells the other woman. She turns on the waterworks when Zola wants to leave, crying that she’s in over her head too, that she’s afraid and alone, then shuts them off again as soon as the other woman agrees to stay. It’s the kind of thing that, were it ratcheted up a bit and carried forward elsewhere, might have brought Zola past “competently watchable” and into really special territory.
For a movie premised on one woman’s account of a surreal and terrifying road trip, Zola leaves Zola herself curiously opaque. What does she like? What does she want? What’s she feeling as all this insanity swirls around her? Whether it’s Page’s reserve, Bravo’s directing, or the reticence of the real-life source herself, the end result lacks substance. Even while poking fun at Jessica, Stefani’s real-life inspiration, for her obviously fabricated rebuttal of Zola’s side of the story, it feels like Zola’s holding back, contenting itself with a raised eyebrow where fireworks might have served it better. Bravo’s film is enjoyable enough, but its ambivalence toward tackling the social media landscape from which it proceeds, its skeletal characters, and its reliance on shocks it can’t quite deliver leave it hobbled right out of the gate.