Zola (2021)

As a terminally online movie nerd who has been relying on borrowed public-library DVDs instead of theatrical distribution to keep up with new releases all pandemic, it’s a minor miracle when I can enter a movie unbiased & unspoiled.  By the time I get to most buzzy releases, I’ve already heard every possible take on its faults & merits, with plenty of plot & stylistic details filled in as supporting evidence.  I was fortunate, then, to watch Janicza Bravo’s Zola without any clear roadmap to where it was headed.  As it was adapted from one of the most notorious Twitter threads of all time (with the co-writing help of its real-life subject & Tweeter, @zolamoon), I should likely be embarrassed that I had no idea where the film’s road-trip-to-Hell story would lead me, but instead I’m grateful.  While the hype around @zolamoon’s tweets was sensational, the conversation surrounding their movie adaptation has been much more subdued, which means the film-obsessed corners of the internet where I lurk left me mostly blind to where it was going.  All I really knew is that Zola lived to tweet about the journey, which did little to lighten the tension of the distinctly Floridian nightmare she survived.

This is not the first movie I’ve seen that was directly adapted from a series of tweets.  2013’s Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylonely.  It’s a playfully experimental work that allows the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom-to-top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims.  Zola is the darksided mirrorworld version of that much lighter, kinder film – finding a chaotic terror & humor in life’s sequential randomness.  By definition, Zola is a purely episodic journey, following each “And then this happened, and then this happened” anecdote of its online source material like the twisty tracks on a rollercoaster – with no hopes of the deranged carnies in charge letting you off.  A part-time waitress & dancer in Detroit, Zola is seduced into a road trip to working a few Florida strip clubs with the promise of easy money & friendship.  The second she becomes a backseat passenger in her obnoxious, shady “friend’s” SUV, she realizes she’s in the hands of unhinged strangers with no choice but to see the journey through, hoping they return her to Detroit in one piece.  Each new strip club & hotel room she’s dragged through along the way springs horrific funhouses surprises at her, and she does her best to remain visibly calm, unphased by their sinister absurdism.  It was the scariest movie experience I had in the entirety of October, when I was mostly watching movies about supernatural ghouls & goblins.

Speaking of funhouses, Janicza Bravo has fun adding a layer of fairy tale artifice to this darkly funny nightmare, setting its pre-strip show dress-up sequences in a fantastic mirror realm scored by angelic harp strings.  We’re swept off our feet by Zola’s new, chaotic stripper friend right alongside her, intoxicated by the promise of wealth & adventure.  There’s a music video sheen to the pop art setting & fast-fashion costuming that can put you under the Wicked Stephanie’s spell if you’re not careful.  Once that spell is broken, you’re forever tied to her, cursed to stare at blank hotel room walls while listening to her turn tricks you didn’t consent to witnessing in an endless parade of gnarled Floridian dicks.  Mica Levi’s usual tension-generator scoring is made even more upsettingly arrhythmic with the intrusion of gum-chewing & Twitter notifications, making sure the vibes remain just as poisonous as they are sickly sweet.  The movie is only 85 minutes long, including its end credits, but by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve been trapped in its hellish mirrorworld for a thousand eternities – in desperate need of a scalding-hot shower. 

I’m not sure why Zola was so breezily discussed & forgotten among online movie nerds when it was released this summer.  Maybe its social media source material or its episodic nature made it appear unsubstantial by default.  Maybe its online discourse cycle had already exhausted itself before the movie was even announced, back when the original Twitter thread was a must-read.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that I got to engage with the movie as a fresh, volatile cultural object months after its initial run – a rare treat these days.

-Brandon Ledet

Greener Grass (2019)

Did you find yourself disappointed that Too Many Cooks wasn’t an hour longer? Have you ever started an online petition to greenlight a gender-flipped remake of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie? Ever have a nightmare that David Lynch rebooted Stepford Wives as an Adult Swim sitcom? The precise target audience for Greener Grass is such an unlikely combination of interests & tolerances that it’s an unholy miracle the movie was ever made in the first place, much less screened at competitive film festivals like Sundance & The Overlook. It’s not enough that its audience has to be thirsty for a femme, Lynchian subversion of Adult Swim-flavored anti-comedy; they have to sustain that thirst for 100 unrelenting minutes as they’re flooded with enough illogical chaos & menacing irreverence to last 100 lifetimes. It’s an exhausting experience no matter who you are, but there are apparently enough weirdos out there who find this peculiar brand of comedic antagonism pleasurable enough to fight through the delirium. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

At its core, Greener Grass is a comedy of manners. First-time directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Leubbe costar as suburban housewives in the same cookie-cutter, fly-over America we’re used to seeing in films like Blue Velvet & Edward Scissorhands. The film is so blatant in its adoption of the Sinister Evil Lurking Under Suburbia’s Manicured Surface trope that it practically functions as a parody of the genre. There’s a framework for a serial killer plot in which a crazed grocery bagger stalks local women and usurps their lives & homes, but it’s mostly treated as an afterthought, some light background decoration. Instead, the film generates most of its horror by mocking middle class suburbanites as subhuman monstrosities. Sharing a communal vanity that drives every single adult to get braces, they make out in wet, sexless slurps that torment the audience in unholy foley work. Proud of the size & cleanliness of their in-ground swimming pools to the point of mania, they bottle the pool water for drinking on the go. Traveling around from beige McMansion to beige McMansion in electric golf carts, they callously trade husbands & children as bargaining chips in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Each awkward social interaction is scored with creepy music cues as the humiliation from not keeping up with the Jones drives them each dangerously mad. It’s a total horror show, in that it’s totally banal.

DeBoer & Leubbe are joined by fellow LA comedy scenesters like Mary Holland, D’arcy Carden, Beck Bennet, and Janizca Bravo as they mercilessly mock the status-obsessed suburban monsters of Everywhere, America. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact target audience for this femme, improv-heavy anti-humor, outside the comedy nerds who turn up for UCB shows in NYC & LA. It was certainly surprising to see the film appear on the schedule for the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, which tends to cater to more immediately familiar horror tones than what the grocery-bagger killer side-plot has to offer here. I will admit it, though: the film is horrifying. Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

Lemon (2017)

It’s been well over a decade of overgrown man-children running the show in mainstream comedies, thanks to the improv-heavy landscape sparked by the Judd Apatow crew, and it feels like that aesthetic has now officially spoiled in the public eye (likely because we have now have an overgrown man-child as President). Brett Gelman’s lead role in the grotesque character study Lemon is maybe the curdled the subversion of that trope we need in our lives right now. Selfish, depressive, pretentious about the art of theatre, socially inept, and prone to wetting the bed like a toddler, Gelman’s lead in Lemon is the culmination of the deeply upsetting, aggressively pathetic character work he’s been doing for years. The movie opens with him suffering a break-up with his longtime, blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), which would usually be played for sympathy in a typical modern man-child comedy. Instead, we can hardly blame her for leaving his dysfunctional, narcissistic ass, something that only becomes truer with time as you get to know him better. More disturbing yet, the movie expands its scope to reveal that Los Angeles is full of dysfunctional man-children just like him. He’s pretty much the norm.

To the protagonist’s credit, he at least supports himself financially through regular work. Between acting gigs advertising STD awareness & adult diaper brands, he teaches drama in a black box theater classroom, a space he mostly uses to express his jealous anger over his younger, more successful students. Most of his career envy is focused on a hot shot thespian played by Michael Cera (who looks like he’s secretly auditioning for a Gene Wilder biopic in the role), a relationship that often turns violent under its falsely cordial surface. This professional envy is even more grotesque in how it shows itself in his treatment of Gillian Jacobs’s theatre student, whom he shuts down, cuts off, ignores, and flat out berates in a way he never does with her male classmates. This toxic attitude towards women extends to how he idolizes his past, youthful romances in New York City and how he awkwardly proceeds to date future romantic prospects. It’s all one big, ugly state of juvenile angst that only gets uglier as you learn how it fits in with the similar shortcomings of his family & LA as a larger community.

It takes a moment to get into the stage play rhythms of Lemon’s dialogue, which can be as cruel & cold as anything you’d find in a Solondz or Lanthimos joint. Director Janicza Bravo, who has an extensive background as a costume designer, keeps the film consistently intense as a visual piece, elevating a (deliberately) pedestrian story with the intense lighting & near-artificial environments of a photo shoot. Bravo’s version of LA is just as beautifully curated as it is terrifyingly cruel, a point that’s driven home at a deeply tense Passover Seder I can comfortably call one of the most memorably nightmarish scenes of the year. As collaborators on the script, she & Gellman have skewered the modern comedy man-child trope so thoroughly that their film reads like an indictment of Los Angles as a city & an industry at large. It’s like a much easier to stomach version of the Neil Hamburger vehicle Entertainment in that way, lambasting all sides of the modern narcissistic entertainer’s existential emptiness, whether they’re a juvenile comedian hack or as self-serious thespian. It’s a harshly acidic, visually impressive picture that takes no emotional prisoners in its stage play cruelty & social criticism, cutting much deeper than you might first expect from Gelman’s Greasy Strangler-level awkwardness.

-Brandon Ledet