As Twitter is to great literature, “Zola” is to the cinematic masterpieces that have come before: It’s superficial and relatively thin on substance, but a whole lot shorter and funnier than, say, “Anna Karenina” or “La Comédie Humaine” — although the latter might have been a good alternate title for this hyper-stylized lowbrow satire, in which “Lemon” director Janicza Bravo turns a whirlwind weekend of sun, fun and sex work into a statement on self-respect and recognizing one’s own worth.
Rowdier than “Hustlers” and “The Florida Project” put together, but hailing from a similar place of for-hire female empowerment, “Zola” is an irreverent, sensibility-offending trip for audiences — a good many of whom may be shocked to their core — and a showcase for leading ladies Taylour Paige (in the title role) and Riley Keough (of “The Girlfriend Experience”), playing the stripper who tries to lead her astray. Inspired by an epic tweetstorm — a flurry of some 140 posts, blasted out by A’Ziah King, aka “zolarmoon,” punched up with ampersands and all-caps and more expletives than a 50 Cent song — that became a viral sensation that became a Rolling Stone story that somehow got optioned for the big screen, “Zola” lays waste to good taste as it recounts a crazy road trip in which two gals head from Detroit to Florida and s— goes south.
The real-life Zola worked in a Hooters restaurant, though the name of the joint’s been changed, as have most of the characters’. “This white b—-” (rechristened “Stefani” here) came in as a customer, probably fishing for a wing-woman to accompany her to Tampa, where her pimp planned to make a few thou. But Stefani didn’t pitch the adventure quite like that. She said there was a chance for them to get rich dancing at a bougie strip club, and Zola fell for it.
Most likely in reference to the story’s social-media origins, a digital tweeting noise pings every so often (punctuating composer Mica Levi’s characteristically abstract, already synthesized soundscape) as if to underscore the details that were true — or else, backed by what Zola had shared on social media. Paige plays Zola with a fair sense of skepticism, pantomiming her discomfort/distrust every time she cuts her eyes or gives Stefani a glance that says, “Does it look like I was born yesterday?” Whether you call it spontaneous or naive, if the offer had been a good idea, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.
So the two women drive down, chauffeured by an ominous dude (Colman Domingo, credited as “X”), who turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and her boyfriend “Derrek” (Nicholas Braun), an all-but-braindead enabler who keeps insisting that, whatever their arrangement, Stefani had agreed to stop prostituting herself. Zola grows increasingly wary and annoyed as she realizes the caliber of screw-ups she’s traveling with, and Keough does a masterful job of chipping away at the whatever-you-call-the-opposite-of-bromance established in the movie’s giddy opening few scenes.
Whereas sex-positive Zola seems to have a relatively healthy handle on her boundaries, as well as an understanding bae back at home, Stefani isn’t nearly as stable. Keep in mind, however, that this is how Zola describes her, further distorted by Bravo and “Slave Play”-wright Jeremy O. Harris’ borderline-slanderous screenplay. After a demeaning night at the strip club, the two women wind up back in X’s SUV, where he informs them, with a sense of menace that cuts through the film’s otherwise-carefree tone, that he’s placed a listing on now-defunct sex-trafficking site Backpage.
From here on, “Zola” starts to feel like that long, tense sequence in the back half of “Boogie Nights” based on the Wonderland murders. Guns are involved, someone gets shot and Bravo — who, working with DP Ari Wegner, adopts a virtual arm’s-length distance from her super-saturated, larger-than-life subjects — shoves our faces in the less-glamorous side of sex work. In one scene, trapped in the hotel room where X expects them to turn tricks all night, Zola averts her eyes, but the camera lingers on what Stefani’s doing, showing a procession of partners of widely varying hygiene, age and endowment.
If that montage doesn’t earn the film an NC-17 rating, then there’s an even more troubling sequence later on, in which the two girls are forced to navigate a gang bang. “We’re not proper,” one of the boxers-clad paying clients says, and Bravo expects us to laugh, because everything in “Zola” is played for outrageous comedic effect. Perhaps that tone is where my misgivings with the movie begin. Sure, it’s fun to see a movie skewer the vapid soullessness of social media and the unregulated economy of male desire, but “Zola” ultimately rings hollow. The actors are fearless, and yet, how much do we know about these characters in the end? The answer: something of their values, but almost nothing of their lives. Despite everything we endure together, this acquaintance extends no deeper than the glitter on their faces.
At the outset, Zola describes her story as “kind of long but full of suspense,” but it’s neither. The film runs barely 82 minutes before credits, and much of the really dramatic stuff has been invented to make the adventure seem more interesting. Yes, there are moments when we genuinely fear whether the characters will make it out alive, but the movie doesn’t seem to value their safety as much as we do. What happens to their injuries? Do they ever get home? Sure, what went down was crazy, but even with all of the dramatic license (read “embellishment and exaggeration”), one doubts this was even the 10th-most-insane thing that happened in Tampa over the weekend of March 27, 2015. It’s just the one that Zola happened to tweet about, and now we all know her story.