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By Leah Greenblatt
January 25, 2020 at 01:05 PM EST
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Zola
Credit: Anna Kooris/Sundance Institute

It almost seems inevitable in 2020: a movie ripped entirely from a Reddit thread. And Zola does come steeped in a sort of surreal internet shorthand — a wild candy-colored road saga with piles of style and postmodern flair, told in the key of smartphone.

For all its luscious zooms on stripper poles and sudden bursts of violence, though, the film is also a great, sly affirmation of the Black female gaze: Over and over, Taylour Paige’s title character proves to be the only sane woman in the room. (To be fair, she’s also the narrator.) Her Zola is a part-time waitress and exotic dancer whose weekend from hell begins when a diner customer (a glittering, shark-eyed Riley Keough) named Stefani makes the executive decision that they will become best friends. Within hours, Stefani invites her to join her in Florida for what she promises will be easy money: dance at a couple of clubs, earn, go home.

She only vaguely mentions the boyfriend (Succession’s Nicholas Braun, whose career is quickly becoming a masterclass in delightful idiots) coming along for the ride, and the volatile “roommate” (Colman Domingo) who will be in the driver’s seat. When the situation does start to take a turn, it’s more like a record scratch, and then a hard skid; before the next 48 hours are over there will be blood. (Also dueling pimps, shotguns, uncountable butt claps, and a near-Euphoria level of montaged male nudity).

This is director Janicza Bravo’s second feature after 2017’s Lemon, and it would be easy to place her work in the same kinetic, soundtrack-heavy vein of filmmakers like the Safdie Brothers and Harmony Korine. But for all the movie’s digital pings and palm-tree lunacy, there’s real humor and humanity threaded through the script (copenned by Slave Play sensation Jeremy O. Harris), and a point of view that feels far outside that kind of nihilist boys' club.

This helps when the narrative — much like the now-iconic tweet-storm it’s based on — inevitably starts to slide into chaos in the second half. Once things go from misdemeanors to major crimes, why doesn’t Zola slip out a side door? Was that an actual gang bang? How, by this time, is Stefani even still standing? If Paige and Keogh weren’t both such indelible, fiercely charismatic characters, the whole thing could easily fall apart. But their presence, and Bravo’s singular vision, give Zola a sort of electric buzz: the thrill of watching something stranger than fiction, and somehow better for being some kind of true. B+

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