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A Long Road to Hoe

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Anna Kooris/A24

MOVIE REVIEW
Zola (2021)

The timing of its release might end up working very well for “Zola.” The frenetic depiction of a weekend from hell, full of sex, guns and godawful decisions in the Floridian heat, it certainly gives us a sensory rush that the pandemic has deprived us of (for better or for worse). It has two equally matched but differently heroic performances from Taylour Paige and Riley Keough; and despite its wild origins and even wilder subject matter, it follows a fairly standard narrative arc: a young woman gets in over her head and suddenly discovers what she’s truly capable of. But director Janicza Bravo makes a silly decision towards the end that dilutes the impact of her heroine’s sudden struggle for survival in favor of cheap laughs.

Anyone who has spent any time on the internet, or specifically Twitter, will probably have heard the origin story: In October 2015 A’Ziah King sent 148 tweets which went so thoroughly viral a magazine article followed, as did this movie deal. The script by Ms. Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris sticks closely to the original format of the tweets (which can still be found in their entirety), with whistles on the soundtrack (done by the consistently marvelous Mica Levi) reminding us when a line of dialogue or piece of action is a straight lift. Social media is an important piece of the plot; the characters are forever on their phones and the interplay with how they are spending their time versus how they appear to be doing so is an understood dichotomy. But the Twitter connection isn’t really necessary, as the plot is relatively simple: Zola (Ms. Paige) is waitressing and Stefani (Ms. Keough) sits at one of her tables. They chat, instantly recognize a kindred spirit in the other, and spend a fun night bonding over their stripping experiences. The next morning Stefani asks Zola to come with her to Florida to dance for easy money in some clubs in Tampa (home of “Magic Mike,” in which Ms. Keough had a small early part). Zola immediately agrees, but has misgivings as soon as she sees who will be joining them: Stefani’s pathetic boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun in a heroically stupid performance) and what turns out to be her pimp (Colman Domingo in a star-making one). Once they arrive in Florida, things get much worse very quickly, and then they get even worse than that.

There’s a certain kind of American nihilism it’s very hard to understand from the outside, but we Americans almost instinctively know how easy it is to slip through the cracks of ordinary living into a world of shotguns, screaming men being tasered by the police, and online ads bringing a parade of men to your door with $500 for 15 minutes of your time. It can be harder to grasp how close disaster always is if you’re dazzled by America’s surface culture of abundance, where the world is full of wonderful things and every desire can be catered to. But the abundance and comfort doesn’t come cheap since everyone involved has to sell out in one way or another. There’s a sequence of Zola calmly and dispassionately checking herself out wearing various stripping outfits in a four-way mirror that makes it clear how willing she is to play the game of using her body to pull money out of men, but only up to a hard limit. Stefani has gone much further and tries to bring Zola with her, and possibly the only compliment that can be given to the others is that no one even hints at forcing her (other than not letting her leave, of course).

Ms. Paige’s performance is spectacular; she has the confident physicality the role requires as well as the quick thinking of someone capable of seeing things clearly. The scene with her and Mr. Braun in the car is essential in establishing how smart she is, and how much Derrek is struggling in ways which make it worse for himself. But it’s Ms. Keough’s performance that’s so unusual, and unusually good, it needs to be seen to be believed. Her Stefani is a woman whose central core has been removed, leaving a creature who only knows how to imitate others and immediately give them what she thinks they want. She’s expert at this – as per her introduction to Zola, and her ability to charm Derrek into ignoring his instincts as to what’s really happening over the weekend – but the havoc she wreaks means other people rapidly lose interest in helping her. Ms. Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, is building herself a fascinating career based on weaponized white womanhood – think of her weapons-grade empathy in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” her Confederate-flag bikini in “American Honey,” or her beauty-queen criminal in “Logan Lucky.” For her to play this obvious villain, who is willing not only to degrade herself but eagerly drag others down with her, makes her one of the most interesting American actresses currently working.

But the damage in Stefani is right there, as obvious as her intricate hair, so when the movie pauses briefly to mock her side of the story, the tone irretrievably slips. It’s not to say she doesn’t deserve it – a white woman weaponizing her tears and so-called good intentions in the fact of the resulting trail of destruction she’s responsible for is something that deserves relentless calling out. But as done here, this garners nothing but cheap laughs, and breaks us out of Zola’s point of view into – well, neither the movie nor Ms. Bravo seems to know. It serves no purpose other than a few excellent visual gags, since the horror of being Stefani is obvious enough without twisting the knife. If that sequence had been cut, or put as a coda in the credits, Zola would have been an almost perfect movie. As it is, for a cautionary tale about how easy it is to accidentally ruin your own life by trusting someone too quickly, it could hardly be better.

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