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'Zola': Robin's Movie Review

A movie poster for the film “Zola.” Headshots of Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are included. Both women are wearing glamorous makeup and looking away from the camera. “Y’all wanna hear a story?” is included at the top of the poster.

For this week’s Movie Minutes, KUNR entertainment reviewer Robin Holabird looks at a new film inspired by a viral social media moment.

The words “wild” and “crazy” go together and definitely fit the new release, Zola. “Wild” covers the experiences of two dancers/sex workers on a road trip from Detroit to Florida. And “crazy” because the film was inspired by a real-life onslaught of tweets.

Six years ago, those who follow the internet more closely than me got wrapped up in a series of 148 tweets on Twitter as a dancer called Zola accepted a ride with a stripper named Jessica, who she met a few hours earlier. Their adventures in Florida included gangsters, murder, failed suicide, and a whole lot of sex…which may explain the popularity of all those tweets.

Among those fascinated by the tweetstorm, writer-director Janicza Bravo saw a feature film. With writing support from Jeremy O. Harris plus Zola’s tweets, Bravo saw no need to follow traditional structural rules, instead fashioning a movie that suits the jumpy, erratic nature of the medium that inspired it. Camera angles and imagery shift, color palettes change, and events rush forward, spiraling into a dark world with ironically light touches of humor.

Though the story itself explores unexpected directions, Bravo shows a sure hand and heads exactly where she wants to go. Her performers make the journey easier, headed by Taylour Paige in the title role. Most recently seen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Paige moves with the smoothness of a trained dancer and gets extra mileage out of a set of hugely expressive eyes. Joining her as Jessica, Riley Keough creates the essence of her lowbrow character, using an accent that adds absurdity as she delivers her own version of the story.

Given the looseness and freedom that tweets allow, that story holds nothing back about the sex trade. Years ago, the events would never make it to mainstream theaters, and its promotion might include a few X’s in the rating. Today, the movie easily earns its R label and moves smoothly to the big screen.

Robin Holabird is KUNR’s entertainment reviewer, author and former film commissioner for the Nevada Film Office. You can find her full archive of reviews here.

Robin Holabird reviews movies for KUNR, and her reviews have aired for more than 30 years. During that time, she has had a high profile in the Nevada film community.
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