There’s one pretty major issue with the end of A24’s Zola: it just isn’t an ending. It’s simply a spot where the movie chose to stop. It’s one of the biggest missteps I see in narrative. Let me explain.
Zola tries to make everything okay by framing the story as the falling out of Zola and Stefani. That’s why the first scene is them together, getting ready, looking good, and the last scene is them in the car, looking disheveled, essentially “broken up.” Reinforcing this frame is that both moments conclude with Zola saying, via voice-over, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b*tch here fell out?”
For many viewers, I’m sure this is enough. You get the beginning, middle, and end of their relationship. What more do you want?
But here’s the thing. Zola and Stefani’s friendship isn’t the story.
The story is the trip and the people on the trip. The falling out is merely a consequence of the journey. That’s why the ending of Zola can feel abrupt: because it starts in Detroit and is about Zola trying to get back to Detroit. You want to see her back in Detroit. You want to come full circle. How’s she react when she’s finally home? What’s her boyfriend say? What happens with Stefani, Derrek, and X? How does this journey affect her? Change her? Or doesn’t it?
Story isn’t just action, it’s reaction. It’s not just cause. It’s effect. We want to know the consequences of what we witnessed. And Zola denies us that.
Which is kind of puzzling seeing as it’s something the real-life Zola included in her initial story.
The end of Zola’s story on twitter:
I know some will argue that nothing dramatic enough happens once Zola’s back to warrant extending the run time of the movie. That you can assume Zola went home and never saw Stefani again and that’s it. Which is a fair argument. I just completely disagree.
Imagine if Avengers: Endgame just went to credits after Tony Stark said “I am Iron Man” and hit the snap on Thanos. It would be cool. But it’s not necessarily satisfying. You’re left going, “Okay, but then what? How did everyone react?”
Imagine if No Country For Old Men ended with the cartel getting the money from Josh Brolin’s character. Instead, it continues on for a solid 10-15 minutes. We see Tommy Lee Jones investigate a hotel room. Another scene where he visits his uncle for a conversation. Another scene between Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh and Brolin’s wife. Chigurh’s car crash. Then a retired Jones telling his wife about a haunting dream that just so happens to get at the film’s main theme. So even though the story was seemingly about “who ends up with the bag of money,” it became much bigger than that. It was actually the story of Tommy Lee Jones’s character being wrapped in in an event that involved a bag of money and a lot of deaths.
Groundhog Day is another one. Phil Conners is stuck reliving the same day over and over again. Naturally, the appropriate place to end the story is with him moving onto the next day. The Zola-way of doing this would be to have the alarm clock go off as it did every morning. But, instead of it being the same song Phil’s heard every day for the last 30 years, it’s a new song. Cut to Phil’s eyes going wide. Then cut to black.
Is that satisfying? I don’t think so. It’s stylistic. It’s edgier, in a way, to end with implication, to force the viewer to say, “Okay, what then?” And it can work (like I think it does in The Lobster) when tied to thematic intent. But when the choice doesn’t reinforce theme, I think you’re better off actually giving the viewer closure. Which is what Groundhog Day does. Phil wakes up in disbelief. Then wakes up Rita. It’s a big deal Rita’s there because she had never once totally fallen for Phil. Phil spent literal decades trying to win her love. And all it finally took was becoming the best possible version of himself. They have a brief conversation, kiss, and Phil realizes he isn’t dreaming. We cut to Phil and Rita walking outside, happy, and Phil saying, “Let’s live here.”
It’s not nearly as involved as the ending of No Country For Old Men but Groundhog Day isn’t trying to be No Country. All Groundhog Day needed to do was let us know, “They lived happily ever after.” And it did.
Zola didn’t need to go full No Country. Nor did it have to force a “they lived happily ever after” in a story where no one was really all that happy. All it had to do was complete the journey. Bring Zola home. Show us, briefly, if the trip to Florida changed her at all. And let us know what happened to everyone else. Just put text an on the screen saying “X and Stefani got arrested four days later. X went to jail. Stefani left Derek and started a new life.” That bare minimum would have been more satisfying than ending in the car on the way to the airport.
Think about that for a second. After that insane trip where Stefani got kidnapped, X had to kill someone, and Derrek threw himself off a balcony…a mere four days later Stefani and X were back to it in Vegas. Not only were they back at it, they’re arrested! And the only person Stefani had to call was Zola because Derrek wasn’t responding. That’s heartbreaking. And that Zola denies Stefani!
That’s emotional. That’s your payoff on “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b*tch here fell out?” Stefani is in jail and Zola straight up tells her, “You really have the wrong number.” Whew.
It’s climactic. It’s meaningful.
And how do you just casually skip over X going to jail for life? That’s a very relevant detail.
I’m so torn on this movie because on the one hand the cast did an incredible job. It was a masterclass by Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, and Nicholas Braun. And, overall, I think Janicza Bravo did an awesome job bringing a lot of cinematic character to the film. It’s just a shame that the script didn’t give Zola the finale it deserved.