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Movie review / ‘Zola’ (MA)

Riley Keough as Stefani, left, and Taylour Paige in the title role of Zola.

“Zola” (MA) ****

WHATEVER female body parts a woman exposes publicly, but society regards as private, that’s her business.

When Janicza Bravo made the jump from directing short films and TV series episodes, the topic of her feature debut, as both director and writer, was a magazine article by David Kushner entitled “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted”.

On the big screen, it turns out to be 86 minutes of unabashed observation of a weekend when African-American Zola (Taylour Paige) and her white boyfriend Derrek (Nick Braun) join blonde Stefani (Riley Keough) and her African-American boyfriend Johnathan (Nasir Rahim), to drive for 20 hours from their mid-western hometown to Tampa (Florida) in a black Mercedes station sedan.

The film takes perhaps 10 minutes to segue from its opening images to those four main characters’ arrival at that destination. It’s time spent making their acquaintances and forming an expectation that they’re celebrating the end of the academic year. Well, in one way, they were. But the reality was different.

As the real objective of the trip develops, we learn that Johnathan had brought Zola and Stefani on the trip there to make money. By renting their bodies to whatever men he or they could find willing to spend $500 a pop.

We’ve already learned that Zola is sexually active, with limitations. She’ll happily display her body as a pole dancer hiding her nipples behind pasties and her genitals behind minimal wisps of cloth. But she doesn’t let men use her sexually. 

Janicza reverses a filmic convention by confining the film’s full frontal nudity to gum-chewing and voluble Stefani’s short-stay clients. 

Stefani evokes memories of Mamie Stover, novelist William Bradford Huie’s anti-heroine played by Jane Russell in Raoul Walsh’s 1956 scandalous (for that time) movie about a sex-worker who tries to go respectable just before America entered World War II and earned enough to succeed.

“Zola” is a message movie that pulls no punches in its caution to young women about the risks confronting them in choosing boyfriends – some but, fortunately, not all. I’m pleased that I chose it for review this week.

At Dendy and Palace Electric

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Dougal Macdonald

Dougal Macdonald

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