A24’s newest film, “Zola,” is the adaptation of the unbelivable148-tweet thread from 2015. It stars Taylour Paige as Zola, and Riley Keough as Stefani as two exotic dancers who are roped into an “After Hours”-like adventure in Tampa. Speaking of Scorsese, the film does start off strong with “Zola” giving voiceover narration much akin to Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” That opening scene even features doo-wop music playing in the background like many of Scorsese’s crime films. Make no mistake, Paige’s performance is far from Liotta in “Goodfellas,” but it is one of the strongest parts of the film. Unfortunately, not a whole lot besides some nice camerawork really stands out. “Zola” is maybe not a bad film, just unadorned. A basic plot does not have to be the death of a film, but there has to be some characters that are interesting or at least redeemable. “Zola” is missing both, and is a surprisingly forgettable film from A24, something that hasn’t been said in recent years.
The main characters are Zola (Paige) and Stefani (Keough), but the latter’s boyfriend, Derrek (Braun) is a dimwitted character that you almost want to have sympathy for. There are times where you can understand his frustration and have empathy for his situation — Braun plays the character with a hint of innocence — but then he will say something moronic that servers as a reminder of what makes his character so unlikeable in the first place. The leader of the operation, X, is played by Colman Domingo. He is a standout and is like a chameleon throughout with the way he switches accents.
Perhaps what makes “Zola” so underwhelming is its ending, or lack thereof. Another recent film, “A Quiet Place Part II,” also had an abrupt ending. Why it somewhat works in that film is that the characters are given resolution to their arcs, even if the film turns to black abruptly. In “Zola,” the crew gets back on the road towards the end, but it gives one more scene at X’s house before the credits roll. With the way it plays out, it felt like a way to pad the otherwise tidy 87-minute runtime.
“Zola” was a disappointment because it feels close to something great. As it remains, Janicza Bravo is a director to keep an eye on, but the story wasn’t as layered as a similar A24 film, “Good Time,” and the good performances don’t make up much ground with these characters. Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”) brings her A-game with a whimsical score, but that may be the only dreamlike part of “Zola.”