25 February 2024

Tale of dancer drawn into dangerous world forms a masterpiece

Zola (MA)

By Tim Kroenert 

24 November 2021

Zola, the new film by writer-director Janicza Bravo, feels like a spiritual sequel to Harmony Korine’s controversial 2012 film Spring Breakers. At release, Korine’s story of young women hard-partying on the precipice of adulthood, then trailing their excesses into violent criminality, was maligned by some as exploitative trash dressed as art.  

It’s since undergone a fair amount of critical reappraisal. There is a pointed foreboding to its images of young, near-naked bodies gyrating in slow motion on a Florida beach. For one character this is a literal religious moment in her life – she narrates these images with incongruous reverence. The film explores a confluence of willing sexual objectification, hedonistic excess and violence in a way that seems uncomfortably relevant to an era immersed in commodified bodies, and identities carefully curated via digital media. 
Zola revisits these themes and updates them for a time where platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become near indistinguishable from our broader social fabric. It is in fact based on a viral Twitter thread, whose author, A’Ziah “Zola” King, is credited as an executive producer.  

The character based on Zola, Taylour Paige, is a professional dancer, who is drawn into a series of seedy and dangerous events by a new friend, Stefani (Riley Keough). Though she is accustomed to using her body as a source of income, her bodily and personal autonomy are tested by the manipulations of Stefani, Stefani’s “roommate” Johnathan (Nasir Rahim), and various other shady characters they encounter. 
The film seems in direct dialogue with Korine’s, stylistically as well as thematically. Reminiscent of those Spring Breakers beach scenes, the camera lingers with surreal dread equally on the women styling their hair with excruciating precision, as it does on limbs curled around dancing poles under the gaze of male patrons.  

This is the body as sexual product, and these bodies pose regularly for phone-cam posterity. The social media-ness of it all is inescapable, with notification-alert tones bleeping in and out of Mica Levi’s score. The descent into more explicit forms of sexual, psychological and physical exploitation and violence feels both relentless and, given the power inequities present within the group, inevitable. 
But this is not to say the film is judgmental. Not even cautionary, at least not in any glib way. There is a playfulness to the performances and direction that provides plenty of humour. It also has an authenticity that dignifies the characters’ humanity.  

Perhaps Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, which recounts a raucous night in the life of a Los Angeles prostitute, sits with the pair in unofficial trilogy. Like Zola, it centres the experiences of sex workers with a rare guilelessness. 

Taken alone, Zola is an intriguing and entertaining piece of pop art. Read in the context of these other two films, it may be a masterpiece. 

Zola is in cinemas now, screening at Cinema Nova. 

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