When Zola debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was like a bomb had gone off. The famed festival had launched many phenomena before, including Reservoir Dogs, The Blair Witch Project, and Clerks. A comedy focused on two sex workers taking a trip to Tampa for the weekend was already a wild proposition. Add in drugs, violence, and the most insane Twitter thread you’ve ever read, and you’ve got Zola. Directed by Janicza Bravo, the film announces a masterful new filmmaker and highlights several star performers to boot.
Zola is based on a Twitter thread from A’Ziah King, who relayed her wild week with a woman named Stefani through the social media platform. Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris adapt the thread into a travelogue-style film, making sure to cite the original thread with the “Twitter Whistle” sound effect whenever quoting the thread directly. Bravo allows Taylour Paige (Zola) and Riley Keough (Stefani) to dive deep into their characters. While this results in some problematic behavior, the absurdity begins to shape the story into a parody of traditional journey films. Its unique view of road trip movies helps subvert audience expectations and make the story feel more grounded in reality. With an incredible performance from Colman Domingo, Zola shines from minute one.
Unfortunately for Zola, the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the nation in the weeks that followed the festival. For those on the ground, the excitement was palpable, and distributor A24 hoped to recapture that energy when theaters reopened. Unfortunately, theaters would not reopen until late in 2019, and to this day, have not found room for more than a few independent hits. Zola would release in June of 2021, a full 18 months after its premiere at Sundance. While the film still represents a considerable achievement, the buzz surrounding the film could not be recaptured. Instead, we can enjoy a wild story of crime and sex, even if it pushes buttons on the way.