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Janicza Bravo's 'Zola' is an electrifying cinematic experience

Carrying "Hustlers" and "Goodfellas" flavors, this is the kind of movie that defies genre placing and keeps you entertained.
Credit: A24
Riley Keough (left) stars as "Stefani" and Taylour Paige (right) stars as "Zola" in director Janicza Bravo's ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Cr. Anna Kooris / A24 Films

ST. LOUIS — Ten minutes into "Zola," a provocative new film based on a true story, I knew I was watching something highly original. A movie that thinks on its own and presents something new and exhilarating. Think sophisticated but taken to the next level, stuffed with personality and razor-sharp performances, Janicza Bravo's thrilling account of a friendship gone wrong is a movie you just can't afford to miss, so let's talk about it on opening day.

The Sundance darling doesn't waste a second of your time, clocking in at a dazzling and overwhelming 86 minutes. Once Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) meet at a restaurant and become fast friends, the story takes off. Strippers looking for something more, they go into business with the dangerous yet loyal pimp, X (Colman Domingo). What follows is one woman's account of how a friendship went sour, but it's more than that. As Paige's protagonist intuitively asks us in the first couple of minutes, "y'all wanna hear a story?"

"Zola" is no ordinary story. Based on a series of tweets by A'Ziah King-the real-life soul behind our story-as well as a Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris' screenplay doesn't merely recount a real world series of events; it's more like they built their own universe, one that looks eerily similar yet rather far away. It's hard to put this movie into a particular genre-even if it reminded me of a "Hustlers," "The Florida Project," and even "Goodfellas" hybrid offering. It's unpredictable, very funny, and extremely well-shot. The dialect and speech spoken between Paige and Keough is fresh and unique, just like the use of a Twitter thread to boost a true tale.

Ari Wagner's cinematography is award-worthy. While I won't go all film nerd on you here, I have to take some time to describe the appreciation for the aesthetic of this presentation. Where they decide to put the camera and the versatile array of shots they collect is unreal. You can't classify the execution on technique alone; Wagner simply isn't afraid to place the camera in unconventional spots.

There's a scene with a tall actor and a short actor, and Wagner's camera positions itself directly at the taller fella's hip. Instead of just pulling out and getting the standard two-person conversation from afar, we get multiple points of view that support the anxiety of the chat between Nicholas Braun and Jason Mitchell, two characters who initially become friends before other events force it into something else.That's the camera telling a story, a little thing bypassed in most films that is used to the movie's advantage here.

The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Domingo and Keough. They don't rely on old tricks or traits, instead carving out multi-dimensional characters that keep you guessing... and laughing as well. Combining humor and drama isn't an easy practice, but these performers make it look easy. Domingo, whose voice commands like a Morgan Freeman vocal broke bad, has never been better. That includes great turns in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "If Beale Street Could Talk," parts that showed off the talent without turning it completely loose. Armed with a devilish smile and a temper that flares, Domingo's pimp isn't someone you should trifle with. He's on my best supporting actor shortlist.

Keough proved she had presence to spare in Steven Soderbergh's "Logan Lucky," but Stefani is a few miles in the other direction. Equal parts crazy and passionate, her misfit work of art brings fire into Zola's life, and Keong has fun being the catalyst of highly fruitful if highly dangerous times. It's a performance that should put her on the map. Paige supplies the film with a strong moral backbone, but her pole-dancing scene finds a way to tell Jennifer Lopez's show-stopping scene from two years ago to hold its beer. It's that good and happens midway. You've seen Paige in "White Boy Rick" and "Boogie" as well as co-starring with Domingo in "Ma Rainey," but this is a "take notice" type of role. She forms something that's hard to describe yet electrifying with Keough.

That description fits the movie to a tee: hard to define or describe yet very polished and original. A movie that marches to its own beat, along with a feet-tapping soundtrack. If you want a different look into the world of a stripper, one with the glitz and glamour taken away while the truth remains... spend 90 minutes with "Zola." You will not be disappointed. I'll be over here telling a few friends to go see it.