In the movie “Zola,” Taylour Paige plays the title character, a 19-year-old Detroit waitress and exotic dancer who takes a road trip to Florida with a new friend named Stefani — played by Riley Keough — only to become embroiled in an increasingly perilous scheme involving sex trafficking, prostitution, murder and attempted suicide. The Sundance hit, which opened Wednesday, is based on a series of tweets posted in 2015 by A’Ziah King, whose wit, bravado and keen storytelling instincts made her tweetstorm an outrageous and gripping must-read.
Janicza Bravo, who directed “Zola,” was instantly captivated when she caught up with the thread after it went viral (she’s not on Twitter). “I had never read a voice like that,” Bravo says during a recent Zoom conversation from her home in Los Angeles. Recalling her own experience at 19, she remembers mostly being “really preoccupied with how men saw me. . . . I was so invested in losing my virginity, so invested in being attractive to men, so invested in just being some object of desire in some way.”
In King, Bravo saw a young woman bracingly liberated from male expectations and approval. “So much of what she possessed, to boil it down, was agency,” Bravo notes. “And it was so sexy to me and so attractive to me. I thought, I want to do everything in my power to catapult that voice.”
“Zola,” which Bravo co-wrote with playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), is an audacious movie, propelled by Paige and Keough’s fearless central performances and Bravo’s own command of tone: The film hews to the familiar contours of a buddy road comedy, even though this friendship goes south literally and figuratively. Viewers who are laughing at Stefani’s painfully affected White-girl “blaccent” one minute might find themselves squirming the next, as her manipulations put Zola in serious danger. As a tightrope act of shifting genres and moods, it shares squirm-inducing DNA with 2017’s “Lemon,” Bravo’s bold, funny and thoroughly unclassifiable feature debut.
Even the no-effs-given attitude that so impressed Bravo when she read King’s original tweets isn’t entirely unmediated: As much pleasure as Zola and Stefani take in reveling in their own bodies and sexuality, they still deploy them within an economic and visual economy controlled by men. Some of King’s most popular lines — many of which Bravo and Harris made sure to include in their screenplay — were retweeted for laughs at the time. But most of them masked far more troubling truths about the lengths to which women, and African American women in particular, must go simply to survive.
“In the days that followed after it came out on Twitter, and even when it was announced I was working on it, so many people said to me, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so funny.’ And I was going, have you read the same [thing]?” Bravo recalls. “There are even a handful of people who watched the movie saying, ‘I read the tweets and I thought it was going to be more fun.’ I suggested that they go back and read the Twitter. . . . I know that the text ‘P---y is worth thousands’ is really funny, but the thing behind it is deeply unfunny.”
“Zola” arrives at a time when the term “female agency” is something of a catchphrase in Hollywood: It forms the narrative backbone of “Black Widow,” in which Scarlett Johansson’s title character battles a Russian spymaster who traffics in young women much the same way a pimp would, subjecting them to mandatory hysterectomies to solidify his control. (If you think that’s a preposterous plot point, ask Britney Spears about her reproductive freedom.)
Still, “agency” is just as often used as cover for sexist values that feel both dated and hopelessly ingrained. Underneath the celebration of bad-girl hedonism and role reversal in “Spring Breakers” was a shallow exercise in voyeurism. Even Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties,” a feminist examination of the hypersexualization of young girls, occasionally slipped into the ogling, objectifying spectatorship it purported to critique.
A similar tension is inscribed in the visual language of “Zola,” by design. “One of my early pitches on the movie was that I wasn’t interested in adding to the catalogue of images of naked women,” Bravo says. “I think we’re good. The library is stock full, and I’m certain that many of my peers will continue to add to it, and I don’t really need to add to that section of the library.”
We do see Paige and Keough twerk, pole dance and dress suggestively, but they never strip. “Something that’s really hot to me specifically about women’s bodies, is what I can’t see,” Bravo explains. And she tosses in some amusing winks at the cinema’s entrenched “male gaze,” such as a rote montage of male genitalia that slyly comments on the routine fragmentation of women into their respective body parts.
Still, even at its funniest and most seductive, “Zola” is about a teenager who narrowly escapes being victimized, whose entertaining yarn masks real, if unresolved, trauma. Similarly in the documentary “Cusp,” which recently played at AFI Docs and will air on Showtime later this fall, the film’s subjects — three headstrong teenage girls running amok over a hot Texas summer — embody unfettered joy and physical freedom while simultaneously navigating the threat of sexual assault, exploitative social media, possessive boyfriends and controlling fathers.
Triumph and trauma. Joy and fear. As Bravo says about King and her story, “There is some pleasure. But there’s also discomfort.” “Agency” may be pop culture’s jargon-du-jour, but how genuine can it be when it’s being conditioned by patriarchal values — social and political, cultural and cinematic — that are as intractable as ever? “Zola” leaves filmgoers with those questions dancing uncomfortably in their heads. Which is just where Bravo wants them.