“So there’s two ways to look at something. That’s the point of the story? Yeah, just say that.” This is how Holland March (Ryan Gosling) responds to one of Jackson Healy’s (Russell Crowe) parables in the 2016 flick, The Nice Guys, and I think it’s also an apt response to Zola, the latest effort from A24. “Well you just lead me on this epic f-cking journey with this story,” March continues, “and 10 minutes later the point is, there’s two ways to look at something. Just… just say that.” The difference is, in Zola, it’s 86 very loud minutes later.
I’m one of those people who gets excited when a new A24 movie comes to theaters. Every release from the ultra-popular indie studio is an event, and it’s no different with Zola, the movie based off a Twitter thread (only click the link and read the thread if you want Zola spoiled. Otherwise, wait until you see the movie).
Yes, you read that right. Zola is based off A’Ziah King’s 2015 Twitter thread about how she, a stripper, met another young stripper, who invited her to Tampa, Florida to dance in a club that would make her much more money than she was making at home. Only, the trip goes completely off the rails and A’Ziah (nicknamed Zola) finds herself in situations never thought she’d be a part of.
The film follows the wild story almost to the letter, except for the last 15 or so tweets of the 148-tweet thread. Leaving out those final tweets is a decision that is quite baffling to me. The movie’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have an ending. It shows Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) meeting, their trip to Florida, and all the wild events that transpire in Florida, but then it just kind of… ends. It’s missing its climax or any semblance of catharsis. Walking out of the theater, I didn’t really know how director Janicza Bravo wanted me to feel or what she wanted me to think other than a realization that everything I just saw actually happened.
I was on board with the movie up until its ending. It was adept at creating a mood and cultivating an atmosphere that had me primed to love a punch of an conclusion, but it never came. This lseemed to recontextualize everything I had just seen into me wondering what the point was. The movie is called Zola, but she spends most of the story narrating and being a spectator of what Stefani and the two men who joined them on the trip are doing. It’s like if you made a movie or three called The Hobbit and then spent those movies mostly following other characters… wait.
The big draw of watching an A24 movie is the way it’s able to fuse its style with its storytelling to make something compelling. Midsommar, Waves, Uncut Gems, Moonlight, The Lighthouse, and so many more all feel like A24 movies, but only because the indie studio is giving a filmmaker the freedom to go out and let their style shape the movie. Zola is the first time I’ve seen an A24 movie that felt like it was parodying the studio. It seemed that artistic choices were thrown in there because that’s what these movies do instead of because they served the story.
I do want to praise a few of the performances, though. Paige is great in her sidelined, if not intriguing role. I had never seen her until the release of Boogie earlier this year. After viewing these two performances, I’m looking forward to seeing what she’ll do in the future. She has a turn in Lena Dunham’s (*cringe*) upcoming project, Sharp Stick, so hopefully that’ll be a vehicle where she will get a chance to shine and not be pushed to the side.
Nicholas Braun is also as great, just as we’ve come to expect. He carries over many of the same personality traits and mannerisms from Cousin Greg from Succession and is the quiet standout for me. Colman Domingo also brings a multi-layered performance that’s much different than what he’s done lately in the likes of If Beale Street Could Talk, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or Euphoria. He’s a welcome sight every time he pops up.
To tie this all back to the quote from The Nice Guys, I’m still just wondering what the point of the whole movie was. There’s a short sequence that gives you the idea that maybe Zola is an unreliable narrator, hence the “two sides to every story” comment, but that seems to be tossed in there to throw off the viewer and give us even the tiniest morsel of something to chew on. Because Zola is the definition of style over substance.