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At Sundance, the hellish journeys of ‘Zola’ and ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Zola — Still 1
Riley Keough, left, and Taylour Paige in the movie “Zola.”
(Anna Kooris / Sundance Institute)

In the most startling scene in “Zola,” Janicza Bravo’s gleefully amoral firecracker of a movie, two young strippers conspire to make $8,000 over a single night in a Florida hotel suite. Zola (Taylour Paige), the brains of the operation, urges Stefani (Riley Keough), a prostitute, to up her rates to $500 a pop. The trick-turning montage that follows is a jaw-dropper, not only for the many shapes and sizes of male genitalia on display, but also for the range and variety of Bravo’s visual tricks, some of which — a scrolling image feed, a heart-shaped “like” button — mimic the interface of Instagram.

With its mix of insouciant form and outrageous content, “Zola” got the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. dramatic competition off to a flashy start on Friday afternoon. Better movies were soon to follow, including Eliza Hittman’s competition entry “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a very different story about a road trip taken by two young women in over their heads. But flash can have its uses, especially in “Zola,” a forthcoming A24 release whose style feels vividly of a piece with its story’s unconventional origins.

This is the first movie I’ve seen that was inspired not by a book or a play, but by a Twitter thread — a highly addictive narrative composed in 148 tweets by a Detroit-based Hooters waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King. Her wild and crazy yarn, about 48 hours she spent on the road with a new friend named Jessica (the real-life Stefani), became a 2015 viral sensation — an eminently retweetable tour de force of humor, suspense and hair-raising violence. It was also a canny demonstration of the pleasures of an unreliable narrator. While King later admitted to having embellished details for dramatic effect — for a fuller, truer picture, you can read David Kushner’s lengthy Rolling Stone article — the movie that Bravo has made of her exploits is largely faithful to that initial tweetstorm, for better and for worse.

“You wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?” Zola asks at the outset, before plunging us into a whirlwind of incident, starting with the moment she befriends Stefani in a booth at Hooters and then jumps into an SUV with her and two other companions, presumably to make money from a pole-dancing gig down in Tampa, Fla. But a more sinister game is afoot: The man in the driver’s seat (Colman Domingo) turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, while her clueless, cuckolded boyfriend (“Succession’s” Nicholas Braun) rides in the back.

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Because going on a road trip, like pole dancing, is an inherently cinematic activity, the visual experience of “Zola” enhances and enlarges King’s twisty narrative in some obvious ways. The Florida sunshine casts its own woozy spell in Ari Wegner’s 16-millimeter images, as does Mica Levi’s atmospheric score, punctuated every so often by Twitter-notification sound effects. Certainly you couldn’t ask for better actors to play the four principals, especially Paige, who needs little more than her exquisite side-eye to turn Zola into a winningly smart protagonist. She may have been hoodwinked into these trick-turning, gun-waving shenanigans, but she crucially refuses to become a passive observer or participant.

A Panamanian-born filmmaker who was at Sundance in 2017 with her debut feature, “Lemon,” Bravo co-wrote “Zola” with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose divisive “Slave Play” advanced a daring thesis about how black-white relationships retain the psychological vestiges of chattel slavery. “Zola” seems to be in conversation with that argument, insofar as it centers on a black woman who finds herself deceived and effectively kidnapped by a white woman — and a white woman who, as played with fearless commitment by Keough, has clearly pilfered most of her persona and style from African American culture.

It’s a persuasive argument and an apt foundation for a buddy comedy with a sociopolitical sting in its tail. But as funny and ferocious as much of “Zola” is, it’s let down by an increasingly haphazard script that doesn’t know how to either sustain its humor or negotiate its turn into darker territory — and so, disappointingly, it waffles. In the end, 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,” to name two movies whose pleasures went beyond their luscious surfaces. But there’s no denying it’s a dazzling ride while it lasts.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — Still 1
Sidney Flanigan in the movie “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
(Focus Features / Sundance Institute)

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The writer-director Eliza Hittman is herself no stranger to sunshine and sensuality, as evidenced by her gorgeous first two features, “It Felt Like Love” (2013) and “Beach Rats” (2017), each one an erotically charged coming-of-age story set during a sweltering Brooklyn summer. But her spare and shattering new movie, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” is a decidedly chillier piece of work, set as it is during the fall months in a small Pennsylvania town. And while the aptly named Autumn (astonishing newcomer Sidney Flanigan), being a glumly inarticulate 17-year-old, would seem to fit the usual profile of a Hittman protagonist, her sexual awakening, which has long since come and gone, is not the picture’s subject.

Autumn has retreated into herself for reasons that are unclear at first, but which seem to go beyond the usual teenage moodiness. Boys at school mock her crudely and often; her own family is distant and inattentive. The only person she seems to be close to is her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works as a grocery store cashier. When Autumn suspects and then confirms that she’s pregnant, Skylar is the only person she tells. Exchanging meaningful glances but few words, they quickly pack a suitcase and head by bus to New York City, so that Autumn can receive an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent. But small-town life has done little to prepare them for the overwhelming bustle of Manhattan, where they must deal with unexpected setbacks, unsavory encounters and a fast-dwindling cash supply.

Watching “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” — a title whose meaning is revealed in a single scene of slow-building emotional force — it’s hard not to sense the influence of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, with their often relentless focus on a youthful protagonist at a moral crossroads. (And also, too, their genius at discovering first-time actors.) I was also reminded of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Cristian Mungiu’s haunting 2007 film about a teenager who helps her best friend secure an illegal abortion. That movie was set in the 1980s, under Romania’s communist dictatorship, and if Hittman’s film never descends to the same depths of bleakness, its realism is no less compromising, its portrait of resilient friendship just as affecting.

Remarkably, the movie, which will be released by Focus Features, seems to draw every emotional layer out of a scenario with no good options, but without tilting into overt miserablism; there are consoling grace notes of humor and tenderness here, too. Hittman captures the feeling of what it’s like to be adrift in one of the world’s biggest cities, where the Port Authority Bus Terminal takes on the quality of a metropolitan purgatory. But she and cinematographer Hélène Louvart have the confidence to let most of the drama play out in Flanigan’s face, which slips among minutely detailed registers of confusion, defiance and, by the end, something like hope.


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