Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) when she serves her table at a restaurant in Detroit. They exchange numbers and befriend each other. A few days later, Stefani invites her on a road trip with her boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and mysterious roommate (Colman Domingo), to make money as strippers at a club. Zola agrees to tag along while leaving her boyfriend, Sean (Ari'el Stachel), behind in Detroit.
Based on a true story, the screenplay by writer/director Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris informs the audience at the very beginning, through Zola's narration, that she and Stefani eventually had a fall out with one another. The rest of the film shows what happened that led to that fall-out. Zola doesn't quite get what she bargained for when she thought that she was going stripping with Stefani. She comes across as a naive and as a toxic liar because she gets into a car with people who she barely knows and trusts them too easily while lying to her boyfriend about where she's going and who she's with. Stefani's roommate acts very aggressive and controlling toward both girls, so it's obvious that he's not someone who should be trusted from the get go. Where exactly the narrative of Zola heads toward won't be spoiled here so as not to spoil the surprise for those of you unfamiliar with the true story, but it does go into dark territory. Bravo and Harris don't shy away from being unflinching when it comes to nudity during some sex scenes while walking a fine line between an R rating and NC-17 rating. This isn't quite Larry Clark territory, so there's nothing that's too graphic or shocking that pushes the envelope per se, although there's a scene with Zola and Stefani using the toilet that leaves very little to the imagination.
There's some very dark comedy throughout the film, but it wouldn't be fair to call Zola a comedy or even mostly a comedy. It's a dramatic thriller with a little dark comedy peppered through it like in Spring Breakers. None of the characters are particularly likable nor are they even remotely good role models, but that's okay as long as you're aware of that and see Zola as a cautionary tale. If the screenplay were to dig deeper into the characters of Zola and Stefani, it would've been more emotionally resonating, so that's a squandered opportunity. However, at least the film manages to be somewhat suspenseful and engaging on a visceral level.
Two of Zola's most interesting characters aren't human: the sound design and soundtrack. Both of those add plenty of style and even some poetry which become some of the film's substance. For instance, there's a scene in front of an apartment complex when the soundtrack blazes at the same time that two kids bounce a basketball back and forth to each other. The sounds of the basketball bouncing then becomes part of the soundtrack as well. Also, the cinematography is very stylish as well in a way that's almost as impressive as Waves's cinematography. It's too bad that Zola isn't as profound or powerful as Waves, though, but at least it does have terrific acting by Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Taylore Paige who gives a breakthrough performance. Keough's accent sounds believable which adds to the film's authenticity. At a running time of just 1 hour and 26 minutes Zola is an exhilarating, wild and unflinching ride.