Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

I used to produce the official Fantasy Fest videos. The concept was to have a sexy celeb act as host, sharing an insider view of Key West’s raunchy masquerade parade with viewers. Fantasy Fest is 10 crazy days in October when quaint Duval Street is crowded with anything-goes celebrants wearing intriguing masks and astounding costumes (or no costumes at all).

For that first video, we brought down Traci Bingham, the actress you always saw in a red swimsuit on TV’s “Baywatch.” The second year we featured Joanna Krupa, dubbed by Playboy as “the world’s sexiest swimsuit model.” The third year we hired Melissa Wolf, “Penthouse’s Most Photographed Pet.”

Melissa brought along two girlfriends, Naughty Nikki and Leigh Daniels. When not posing for Penthouse and other magazines, they worked strip clubs on the Dixie circuit.

I couldn’t help thinking about them while watching “Zola,” a new film that’s hitting theaters this week – included Tropic Cinema.

In it, two gals set off on a cross-country road trip with the goal of making lots of money dancing in Florida’s strip clubs.

This biographical dramedy is directed by Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”). After attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bravo made her mark by directing a series of short films (“Eat,” “Pauline Alone,” “Hard World for Small Things,” et al.). Filmmaker magazine picked her as one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”

The interesting part is that she based “Zola” on a tweetstorm (148 posts) by a Detroit waitress named Aziah “Zolamoon” King, an expletive-laden missive that resulted in a Rolling Stones article titled “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.”

“Zola” follows the picaresque journey of this waitress and a sex worker as they head for Florida to become strippers. Before she knows it, Zola finds herself trapped in “the craziest, most unexpected trip of her life, partaking in a wild two-day trip with Stefani, her boyfriend Derrek, and Stefani’s violent pimp.”

Variety called it “virtuoso filmmaking” and acknowledged “a pair of killer performances,” but dismissed the 90-minute film as a “hyper-stylized lowbrow satire.”

I wouldn’t go that far. Truth is, I have a soft spot for sad characters like this, the type of women you met in “Hustlers” or “The Florida Project” – people who get led astray by their own naïveté and desperation.

After all, I’ve hung out with Melissa Wolf and her zany girlfriends … just before Melissa got arrested as “Atlanta’s Mansion Madam” for maintaining a website where she offered to spend the weekend with gentlemen for $10,000.

People often take missteps without realizing the consequences.

In the movie, Zola and her new girlfriend are maneuvered by a pimp from stripping in a club to an all-night play-for-pay sex marathon and eventually to a frightening gangbang. Here you get guns, violence, attempted suicide – and laughs.

Despite its X-rated storyline, “Zola” is largely played for comedic effect. This is a tricky tightrope for a filmmaker to walk, but Janicza Bravo bravely shuffles along in her cinematic high-wire act. Time magazine calls it “a wild Road Trip movie that works against all odds.”

All humor aside, the most outstanding thing about this film is the fearless performance by its two stars.

Taylour Paige (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) is convincing in the title role, her skepticism apparent even though she can’t escape this misadventure that’s quickly going from bad to worse. To get into her role, Paige actually worked undercover as a stripper, using the name “Zo” (for Zola).

Riley Keough (“The Girlfriend Experience”) is stone-cold believable as the new girlfriend who leads Zola astray. If you notice a familiar cast of the eyes in Keough, that’s because this model-turned-actress is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley. Yep, Lisa Marie’s little girl all grown up.

“Zola” is another rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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