Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm.
What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?
I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way.
I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound.
Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.