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Zola First Reviews: A Laugh-Out-Loud Hybrid of Spring Breakers and Hustlers

Critics say director Janicza Bravo's sophomore effort showcases her immense talent and benefits from outstanding work by stars Riley Keough and Taylour Paige.

by | January 25, 2020 | Comments

Anna Kooris courtesy of Sundance Institute
(Photo by Anna Kooris courtesy of Sundance Institute)

One of the most anticipated movies of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, partly because it’s the sophomore effort from Lemon director Janicza Bravo, but mostly because it’s based on a Twitter thread that went viral, Zola seems to live up to expectations as a clever adaptation filled with exceptional performances. The first reviews following the premiere are mostly positive, celebrating the appropriately disjointed and fleeting entertainment of this road trip comedy involving a stripper, a sex worker, her boyfriend, and her pimp through the wilds of Florida.

Here’s what critics are saying about Zola:


Does the movie feel like a Tweet adaptation?

[It’s] as laugh-out-loud funny and nail-bitingly wild as Wells’ original Twitter thread.
– Angie Han, Mashable

The script retains the humor of the original thread, again framing an increasingly dark story with a light touch.
– Benjamin Lee, Guardian

One of the greatest pleasures of the original series of tweets, which is preserved here, is the inherently humanist observation that everybody is a messy, dramatic bitch in their own way.
– Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Zola often unfolds at the fragmented clip of the feed that inspired it. That sometimes means that it struggles to fit into the constraints of a linear story.
– Eric Kohn, IndieWire

As Twitter is to great literature, Zola is to the cinematic masterpieces that have come before: It’s superficial and relatively thin on substance.
– Peter Debruge, Variety


Does it ever go deeper than that?

Zola is a fascinating status update for our time.
David Bax, Battleship Pretension

Zola is operating on a level more aesthetic and cerebral, using these quirks to tell a parallel story about the stories we tell about ourselves on the internet, inviting us to consider who’s framing them, and how, and why, and to what end.
Angie Han, Mashable

The sound effects might be a little gimmicky, but there is something maybe profound about the way Zola features in the film.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

[Bravo] and Harris never try to push Zola into some kind of big statement about Who We Are Today… Like Twitter itself, it might not offer much substance, but someone who knows what she’s doing can make it a hell of a fun diversion.
Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly


Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
(Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

How is the movie’s pacing?

Bravo puts so much effort into keeping the rapid-fire pace in flux, while her small ensemble throw themselves into the unseemly hedonistic energy on display.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire

I had expected Zola to be a frenzy… but a lot of the film is muted, making so much of the sordid things that Zola encounters seem almost prosaic.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Zola suffers from some pacing issues, particularly in the second half as Bravo tries to strike a balance between the film’s shifting tones.
Brent Hankins, The Lamplight Review

At a swift 90 minutes, the film has some pacing issues.
Benjamin Lee, Guardian


What is Zola reminiscent of?

Zola lands somewhere on the glitter-neon spectrum between Spring Breakers and Hustlers – which is to say: it’s pretty much a blast.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

It’s not prurient Spring Breakers, nor flashy, righteous Hustlers. It’s more meditative than that.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

The movie doesn’t have the clear-eyed smarts of a grifter fairy tale like Hustlers, much less the hypnotic power of a girls-gone-wild classic like Spring Breakers.
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Spring Breakers might seem like the obvious aesthetic comparison, though Bravo’s energetic style has more in common with early Guy Ritchie movies.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire

It makes Hustlers look like a Disney movie.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

This film has a vibe more like a female Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, but set in Florida, and without the drugs.
Manon de Reeper, Film Inquiry


Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
(Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

How is the cast?

[Colman] Domingo is a standout. As is the ever invaluable Riley Keough.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Keough, in particular, is golden with her cartoonish (and often appropriating) accent.
Matt Cipolla, The Spool

The casting of Riley Keough is a masterstroke… she displays previously untapped comic timing.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

The movie’s driving force, however, is the chemistry between Paige and Keough.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

You couldn’t ask for better actors to play the four principals, especially Paige.
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Paige and Keough are a classic comedy duo whose energies are so in-sync and old-school you wish they’d take Stefani and Zola on the Vaudeville circuit.
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

If Paige and Keogh weren’t both such indelible, fiercely charismatic characters, the whole thing could easily fall apart.
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

Braun is a scene-stealer, bringing Cousin-Greg-by-way-of-Pete-Davidson energy to poor guileless Derrek.
Angie Han, Mashable


Is it funny?

Extremely funny.
Hannah Woodhead, Little White Lies

Laugh-out-loud funny.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Things get dark and menacing, to be sure, but Zola is also filled with outrageous laughs.
David Bax, Battleship Pretension

[Made with] as much comedy as artfulness. And [Bravo] and O’Harris’ brisk writing is gut-busting stuff.
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post


Anna Kooris courtesy Sundance Institute
Director Janicza Bravo (Photo by Anna Kooris courtesy Sundance Institute)

How is Janicza Bravo’s directing?

I am glad this story, the experience of a black woman, was translated to the screen by a black female filmmaker.
Manon de Reeper, Film Inquiry

Bravo is an accomplished hand and her stylistic choices, which often come right out of left field, avoid gimmickry for the most part. It’s a bold calling card.
Benjamin Lee, Guardian

Bravo shows promise as a filmmaker here.
Anthony Kaufman, Screen International

Bravo’s film marks a huge step up for her.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Bravo is a gifted director I look forward to see more from.
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post


What else is noteworthy?

The music composed by Mica Levi is entrancing, melancholic followed by uplifting.
Manon de Reeper, Film Inquiry

Mica Levi does the music, pulling from trap, southern hip-hop, and iPhone to make something retro but contextually fitting.
Matt Cipolla, The Spool

The cinematography also boasts a dreamlike aesthetic, reminiscent of past A24 offerings like Spring Breakers and The Florida Project.
Brent Hankins, The Lamplight Review

There’s cool beauty, too, in the look of the film, shot on 16mm by Ari Wegner like a sinister fairy tale.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter


Are there any major criticisms?

There’s a growing shagginess to the structure that makes the climax feel gross and underwhelming… it ends on a total shrug.
Matt Cipolla, The Spool

There’s an unstructured messiness to the plotting which I initially liked… and for the first half we’re locked in, but near the final act, attention drifts.
Benjamin Lee, Guardian

Fittingly for something inspired by a tweet thread, it basically just stops rather than having an actual ending.
Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

The only real failure is the decision to change the endpoint of the story; the original closing tweet was punchier.
Hannah Woodhead, Little White Lies

How much do we know about these characters in the end? Despite everything we endure together, this acquaintance extends no deeper than the glitter on their faces.
Peter Debruge, Variety

It’s ultimately unsatisfying — more style than substance.
Anthony Kaufman, Screen International


Zola premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, January 24.

#1

Zola (2020)
89%

#1
Adjusted Score: 90.762%
Critics Consensus: Zola captures the stranger-than-fiction appeal of the viral Twitter thread that inspired it -- and announces director/co-writer Janicza Bravo as a filmmaker to watch.
Directed By: Janicza Bravo

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