Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2020. Killer Films, Gigi Films, Ramona Films. Story by Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts, Screenplay by Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, based on the tweets by A’Ziah King and the article Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted by David Kushner. Cinematography by Ari Wegner. Produced by Kara Baker, Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, Christine Vachon, Gia Walsh. Music by Mica Levi. Production Design by Katie Byron. Costume Design by Derica Cole Washington. Film Editing by Joi McMillon.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but did you know that nothing is stranger than Twitter? A thread of 148 tweets published by Detroit waitress Aziah “Zola” King went viral in 2015, was then turned into a Rolling Stone article by David Kushner before the story was optioned by James Franco, who was initially set to direct the film adaptation (he remained on the project as producer and, following sexual misconduct allegations brought against him close to the film’s release date, goes uncredited). The flashy modern origin of the tale sounds like something that will have little more to offer than shock value, another tired entry in the Florida Trash Gone Wild genre alongside Bully and Spring Breakers, films that audiences disingenuously deconstruct as cultural critique while indulging themselves in renegade sex and violence. Not so here, for director Janicza Bravo takes the shocking narrative and provides a fascinating, endlessly enjoyable but, somehow, never exploitative ride down a rabbit hole that feels like it will never find its bottom.
Taylour Paige is excellent as King, who serves a meal to fast-talking exotic dancer Stefani (a mesmerizing Riley Keough) and quickly becomes best buddies with her, by that evening texting her non-stop and taking Stefani up on her offer to get her a dancing gig (something she was already experienced in). When her new friend asks Zola if she’ll join her on a weekend trip to make tons of cash in the seedy nightclubs of Tampa, our heroine is only happy to oblige, and the car isn’t even at the state line before she realizes that things are going horribly wrong. They’re joined by Stefani’s clueless boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her friend “X” (Colman Domingo), who drops them at a club where they make some cash before he sets them up in a hotel room and expects them to service male clients, which Zola never agreed to do. When she tries to leave, she is met with X’s dangerous threats, leading to a very long weekend without sleep and dealing with Stefani’s inconsistent explanations for what is going on, doing what she can to get away from the nightmare as intact as impossible as things devolve into violent confrontations in motels with shotguns in hand.
Bravo never looks down at the work these women do, nor does her honesty about the world they inhabit involve any snobbery, Florida is a grimy, rundown place and these gals are just trying to make a buck by turning late nights in dirty places into the stuff of fantasy. Presenting the story in the form of gossip told behind closed doors (including a brief interlude where we find out Stefani’s point of view) makes the story feel exciting and surprising instead of overindulgent, and both leads give fully unapologetic performances as characters who live in an extreme form of expression and yet always seem like real people.