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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hustler's Rhapsody"
5 stars

Fifty years ago, the late, great Hunter S. Thompson published “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a groundbreaking literary event that began life as a proposed series of photo captions as part of a piece on an auto race for Sports Illustrated, became notorious after appearing in the pages of [i]Rolling Stone[/i] that left those who read its description of a hilariously debauched road trip found themselves wondering just how much of it really happened and eventually hit the big screen in a fantastic 1998 film from Terry Gilliam that somehow figured out a way to translate Thompson’s highly distinct authorial voice into cinematic terms. Now, a half-century later, we have “Zola,” a work that began life as an extended Twitter thread written by Aziah “Zola” Wells that went viral in 2015, became notorious when a story about it appeared in [i]Rolling Stone[/i] that left those who read its description of a hilariously debauched road trip wondering just how much of it really happened and has now hit the big screen in an very entertaining work from filmmaker Janicza Bravo that has managed to figure out a way to translate the highly distinct authorial voice of that original thread into cinematic terms. Coincidence? Perhaps, but the end result is a breath of fresh, if undeniably raunchy, air amidst all the other formulaic multiplex fare that has been turning up as the film industry begins to emerge from its enforced hibernation.

The film opens with the chance meeting one night between Hooters waitress Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), a customer who works as a stripper and suspects that Zola is one as well. She is correct and the two instantly bond, spending a wild night out together that ends with them, in the tradition of new friendships these days, by trading all of their social media information. The very next day, Stefani texts her with a proposition—a road trip to Florida where they can spend a weekend stripping at a club that she knows and make a lot of quick money. Even Zola thinks that this is a little fast but with nothing else to do—other than hang out with her nice-but-dull boyfriend—and the promise of instant cash, she agrees.

As it turns out, there are two other people along for the ride to Florida—Stefani’s fairly dimwitted boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and the driver (Colman Domingo), who s introduced as Stefani’s “roommate” (which only Derrek seems to believe)—and while the trip down is fun enough, things take a dark turn once they arrive when Derrek is dropped off at a crappy motel while the others go off to the club. From there, the three go to a higher-end place and it is then revealed that Stefani is a prostitute, the “roommate” is her pimp and that Zola has been roped in by the two of them to turn tricks for the weekend. What happens next, I leave for you to discover but suffice it to say, it is pretty sordid even by Florida standards.

“Zola” is a film that should not work at all for reasons that have nothing to do with its origins as a Twitter feed. Simply put, this is a narrative that takes a subject—sex trafficking—that most people would agree is not particularly funny and tries to mine it for laughs, albeit of the darkest and most twisted kind imaginable. One tonal misstep and the whole thing could come crashing down into either a tasteless and cruel mess of would-be outrageousness or a ponderous feature-length PSA more interested in scolding viewers than in entertaining them. Right from the start, however, it becomes clear that Bravo is just the person to undertake this particular high-wire act and she keeps impressive footing throughout. There are a number of very funny scenes in the screenplay, co-written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, but they are ones that emerge logically from the bizarre situation that Zola has unwittingly found herself in rather than dumb stuff that has been shoehorned in for easy laughs. In one of the most inspired bits, the righteously pissed-off Zola discovers the low price that is being offered for Stefani’s services and, despite her anger, negotiates her rate upward with impressive results—not even her rage will interfere with helping a fellow sex worker make what she deserves to earn. On the other hand, Bravo takes care to underscore just how dangerous the whole situation is and we can never be certain that an initially amusing moment will not veer into darker and more violent areas on a moment’s notice, lending an edge to the proceedings that reminds us that this is not all fun and games.

Besides Bravo’s firm and inspired grasp on the tricky material, “Zola” is also bolstered by a trio of very impressive performances that also find just the right approach as well. Taylor Paige, who was last seen as Viola Davis’s girlfriend in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is fantastic what should be a star-making turn—like the film itself, she is equally adept at handling both the comedic and dramatic aspects of the story while at the same time lending her character both an intelligence and agency that might have otherwise gone lacking in other hands. Riley Keough, on the other hand, has been regularly stealing scenes (and occasionally entire movies) for a few years now but her work here is perhaps her best to date—even though she is playing the kind of supremely awful character that most people would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid in real life (imagine the most mind-numbingly awful Tweet you have ever read brought to life and outfitted in a schoolgirl skirt), she does it with such inspired abandon that you can’t wait to see what she does next. (The brilliance of her performance is definitely revealed during one brief-but-hilarious moment when the tables are turned and we get a recounting of the story from Stefani’s alleged perspective.) As the unnamed “roommate,” Colman Domingo does an impressive and occasionally fearsome take on a guy who uses bluster and surface details (such as changing his accent depending on how threatening he wants to appear) as a way of disguising to people (though not Zola) that he is not quite as savvy as he likes to pretend himself to be.

Like most real-life road trips, “Zola” perhaps goes on a little too long and begins to run out of gas towards the end (with some stuff involving Stefani’s dopey boyfriend that doesn’t quite work). For the most part, however, the film is an audacious, startling and largely entertaining meditation on everything from the sex industry to trust issues to Internet culture that transforms its potentially dubious and trashy origins into probably the closest thing that you are going to get to something resembling art in a movie theatre at this moment. I don’t know if I would go so far as to suggest that Twitter will now become a major source of inspiration for filmmakers in the future but if other tweet threads can inspire a film as impressive as this, I would have no problem with that.

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originally posted: 06/30/21 11:03:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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