There’s cultural homage, and the much-reviled “cultural appropriation.” And then there’s whatever the hell it is that Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, puts on and pulls off in “Zola,” a hilariously dark and dirty road comedy built on a stripper’s “my hand to God this happened” tweets.
Janicza Bravo’s film is a Taylour Paige (the “younger woman” in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) star vehicle. And she gives it her savvy, sassy, side-eye best as the title character, a Midwestern waitress who gets mixed up with wild child Stefani (Keough) only to tell us the story of how “me and this b—h here fell out“.”
But that drawling, fronting, teasing and “street” sounding Stefani is her own kind of racial riffing, culture appropriating, personal space invading, over-sharing, gum-snapping Queen of Bad Decisions. She’s the perfect foil for no-nonsense Zola’s account of a road trip/”ho’ trip” from Hell.
Because that was Stefani’s doing, what Stefani set up and where Stefani lures Zola, from that first “You dance?” question at the themed restaurant where Zola waitresses, to that farewell drive back over the Sunshine Skyway across Tampa Bay.
It’s “Spring Breakers” with strippers, alleged adults who’re supposed to know better. But Stefani’s sucked Zola in over her head, and over her own childish, dimwitted head as well.
They’re hauled 20 hours down the highway (from Detroit, in the “true” story) to Tampa where a “dancer” can pull in “5Gs a night!”
If you don’t know Tampa as Strip Club Hell, you haven’t been paying attention to why every sports league in America’s Sporting Industrial Complex wants to hold its championships there.
Stefani’s going with her boyfriend, nerdy wannabe-B-Boy Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and the guy (Colman Domingo) who owns the Mercedes SUV, whose name Zola narrates that she doesn’t learn “for two mother (youknowwhatting) days.”
Looking for explanations of this whole…situation? So is Zola.
He “takes care of me” Stefanie euphemizes about the unnamed Mercedes driver. “Stripper translation,” Zola snaps in narration, “He her PIMP.”
There’s a lot of translation, and a lot y’all watching this are just supposed to figure out for yourselves as a weekend for some quick “dancing” cash turns towards an even older profession. Zola, who sexed-up her live-in boyfriend (Ari’el Stachel) so he wouldn’t pout about this “ho’trip”, has to take a hard “pass” on “private dances” and much worse from the charming unnamed SUV dude who turns off the smarmy African American charm and switches on the Jamaican psycho pimp in a heartbeat.
Stefani may think nothing of servicing a Who’s Who of unattractive Tampa rednecks, genitally-deformed “customers.” But Zola?
“No shade. No shame. You do YOU,” but uh-uh. Zola ain’t HAVING that.
Bravo (“Lemon”), who adapted the tweets and the magazine article about them that made them famous, holds a mirror up to downmarket, down-and-dirty American culture in her second feature film, after doing mostly TV — episodes of “Mrs. America” and “Dear White People” and “Divorce.”
The Sunshine State is decorated with strip clubs, Confederate flags and a lot of unseemly things that have little to do with Disney World.
And in Paige, she’s cast an exemplar of “stripper as athlete,” and an adorably deadpan slow-burn reactor to all that is “messy” about Stefani, this situation she finds herself “trapped” in and the Florida and America where all this goes on. It’s not all “money/ti—es” selfies, oh no. There is much that Paige’s Zola is moved to give a side-eye to.
Keough’s Stefani is exhausting, crude, gross and nasty, prattling on in her idea of African American street argot about “dooky-ass” this and “nappy-ass” that. And just for good measure, we see “her” version of the unfolding fiasco, laughable lies, but then again, what’s it say about Zola that she dove into this trip with this foul-mouthed flake she just met?
The soundtrack is peppered with phone-alert “pings” and hip hop road trip sing-alongs (“Hannah Montana” by Migos). There’s a backstage at the strip club prayer that will give you religion.
“Lord, send us NI—S…with culture…and GOOD credit!”
And if it wears you out, just as Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” made you long for spring break to end, that’s kind of on the money, too.
There’s only so much dirty, lowdown Tampa anybody can stand.
MPA Rating: R, for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity and violence including a sexual assault.
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel
Credits: Directed by Janicza Bravo, script by Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, based on tweets by A’Ziah King and a magazine article by David Kushner. An A-24 release.
Running time: 1:27