PARK CITY, Utah — At long last, a movie based on Twitter. Well, a movie based on an article based on Twitter. OK, a movie based on an article based on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and a partridge in a pear tree.
“Zola,” a nervy, very funny gem that premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, cleverly traces its origins to social media. In 2015, a Twitter user called @_zolarmoon recounted in 144 tweets an adrenaline-fueled, dangerous and spectacularly weird journey she’d been taken on by a new, not-so-reputable acquaintance. Her tale became a worldwide sensation.
“You wanna hear a story about how me and this b—h fell out?,” Zola (Taylour Paige) says to the camera at the beginning of the film — the first of many hilarious, dry asides. “It’s kinda long, but full of suspense.”
Zola is a black waitress and late-night pole dancer — a highly skilled one, at that. For those of you who thought that “Hustlers” didn’t have enough pole theatrics, you shan’t be disappointed by the sensual athleticism here. Also, being a movie about strippers and hookers, there’s ample nudity, mostly of the male variety. Be warned.
At her Hooters-y eatery, Zola meets Stefani (Riley Keough), a white fellow dancer who stridently speaks as if she was black. You’d wince if you met her, but onscreen it’s a riot.
Although Stefani is irritating as a gnat, she has a certain gravitational pull. Zola is charmed, and they begin texting non-stop, day and night.
The texts start to feel like an uncredited character. Co-written by director Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O’Harris (“Slave Play” on Broadway), the film has a sharp mobile-device vocabulary. Even in its soundscape — harps, xylophones, classical music, Migos’ “Hannah Montana” — text tones and notifications are scattered throughout as casually as bird chirps or car honks.
In one texting thread, Stefani invites Zola to join her, her boyfriend and roommate on a trip to Tampa, Florida, to dance at a strip club where they’re sure to make buckets of money. The two have only just met, but Zola goes anyway. From there, the movie oscillates between laughs and chills.
The boyfriend is Derrek (Nicholas Braun), a demure and kinda stupid layabout who never fully explains what he does for work. Braun (Gregg from HBO’s “Succession”), who wields dumb naïveté like Gordon Ramsay wields a chef’s knife, is perfection. Instantly lovable. The “roommate,” who has a resume full of major secrets, is played by Broadway’s Colman Domingo. He flips his switch from dish to dirtbag like a pro.
Bravo is a gifted director I look forward to see more from. A few films in recent years have captured the hardscrabble vibrancy of Florida — “Moonlight,” “Queen & Slim,” “The Florida Project” — but hers’ is the first to do so with as much comedy as artfulness. And her and O’Harris’ brisk writing is gut-busting stuff.
In once scene when Lola is dancing, a nearly toothless man in a sweaty tank top says, “You look like Whoopi Goldberg.” It brought the house down.
But it’s the core duo that makes all the absurdity real, and absurdly fun. Paige and Keough are a classic comedy duo — I think of Romy and Michelle — whose energies are so in-sync and old-school you wish they’d take Stefani and Zola on the Vaudeville circuit.
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