“Zola,” directed by Janicza Bravo, is based on a true story from Aziah “Zola” King and her tweets detailing the life of a stripper including murder and suicide. It is eerie, madcap, irreverent and unsettling. The odd deadpan is hard to define, yet it always keeps you guessing.
Zola (Taylour Paige) a part time stripper, has a chance encounter with Stefani (Riley Keough) who tells her of a stripping opportunity with absolutely no intimate contact. There is just one catch: The client is in Tampa. Zola is intrigued and agrees.
Zola meets X (Colman Jason Domingo), a pimp, and Derrek (Nicholas Braun), Stefani’s timid boyfriend. Zola does not know what to expect. As soon as Zola enters a dive of a motel in Tampa she has misgivings. But X has control and money is everything.
The story unfolds a bit like a horror film. There are dimly lit corridors and corners everywhere you look. Neon lights resemble jaundice and crosses pepper the landscape like hash marks of authoritarian dread or extremism.
The film in some ways is reminiscent of the work of Larry Clark. The lack of empathy echoes the film “Kids,” or the tone of Harmony Korine. Stefani is a frenetic dragonfly, drugged by money, while Zola is an observant space traveler, reticent and watchful. Her eyes take everything in with a passive openness to a point.
The acting is raw and honest, particularly in Nicholas Braun. One is hard pressed to find a character so anemic and willing to be a cuckold.
Like “Lolita” or “A Clockwork Orange,” the characters are put in off-putting and uncomfortable situations. The fleshy weirdness of sex is illustrated here too, in squeamishness and silliness. There is a rapid montage of penises that flash along with the air of a Warhol silkscreen.
While at first glance, the plot might seem a bit like Carl Hiaasen, with strippers and Florida swimming pools, the underbelly of things is much darker and serious. Amorality and apathy and density rule the day. Zola, either a cunning recorder of events or a shell-shocked voyeur, remains an opaque traveler.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org