Written by Anna Harrison
“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
So begins the viral Twitter thread from 2015, and so begins the movie it inspired: Janicza Bravo’s Zola. The original thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King, consisting of 148 tweets, became an internet sensation, garnering thousands of likes and retweets over the course of its posting not just due to the story of the tweets but the voice with which Zola told them, the humor and no-bullshit attitude she displayed even when facing increasingly absurd (and frightening) scenarios.
Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Tony nominee and likely future winner for Slave Play) manage to recapture the captivating storytelling of the original Zola and bring to life the first Twitter adaptation with thoughtfulness and style to spare (it was shot on 16mm, giving it a hazy, almost dreamlike quality). Little has changed from the Twitter thread, except some names: we start with our titular heroine, Zola (as played by Taylour Paige), working at a sports bar (as opposed to the original Hooters) and stripping on the side. One day as she’s waitressing, she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), and the two—while not recognizing each other—immediately pin each other as kindred spirits with a shared enjoyment for dancing, and so Stefani convinces Zola to join her for a weekend in Florida hitting the strip clubs to make some extra cash. Zola agrees, so after convincing her boyfriend, Sean (Ari’el Stachel, Tony winner for The Band’s Visit), to let her leave through the power of sex, Zola joins Stefani, Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Succession’s Cousin Greg), and a mysterious, unnamed man called “X” played by Colman Domingo, and they go down to Florida.
If you’ve read the tweets, you know what happens next. X turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and a far more threatening figure than you might first believe, Derrek is in completely over his head and one moment away from a nervous breakdown, and Stefani has dragged her purported friend into all this without thinking of the consequences. Luckily, Zola has a good head on her shoulders; Paige plays the straight man to the wild antics of her cohorts but does it with such magnetism that it’s hard to take your eyes off of her, even when she’s not talking (and she does often stay quiet, revealing her thoughts to the audience via the occasional voiceover, complete with the sound cue for a sent tweet to cap it all off).
Keough’s Stefani is the flashier role, with an overexaggerated and culturally appropriated accent—you feel as if a slur is on the tip of her tongue at all times—but her over-the-top approach works well. Braun’s performance might seem like a Cousin Greg ripoff at first, bumbling and making bad choices, but as the movie progresses, he imbues enough layers into Derrek to set him apart, and Domingo is alternatingly charming and frightening, X’s Nigerian accent slipping out when he goes into a rage but just as quickly covered over by an American one and a wide smile.
What sets Zola apart, more so than the performances, or the way it looks, or the excellent score by Mica Levi, is the way it interacts with its source material. The internet gives us access to all sorts of crazy things, but it in and of itself is apathetic, presenting these things and letting us marinate on them alone with our screens; Zola shows us Confederate flags and tower-like crosses on the drive to Florida interspersed with clips of its characters gleefully singing Migos’ “Hannah Montana”; Derrek drives alone with a scene of police brutality in the background. Bravo doesn’t comment on these occurrences, instead letting us scroll past them (so to speak) silently, conversely conveying much more than any exposition-heavy dialogue could. Tweet and text chimes abound, and at one point during a montage of penises (please do not take your child to this movie, as the couple sitting in the row behind me did), an Instagram heart flashes over the largest one. It’s all a performance, it’s all for the ’Gram. “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” she asks herself as she prepares to go onstage. “Who you gonna be?” Derrek watches Vines of people getting injured by various mishaps, chortling to himself at their misfortune (if 2015 feels recent, it only takes the appearance of a dead app like Vine to immediately date Zola). At one point, in what amounts to a hostage situation, Zola disassociates and our vision is replaced by a Mac screensaver—writhing tentacles of light changing color as they move. You know the one. Zola doesn’t just talk about our modern technological landscape, it merges with it.
Like the internet, Bravo never lingers too long on one particular topic, but crafts a better film for it: there are no monologues on the treatment of women, or the intersection of race and gender, or the way Zola slowly starts to lose control over her own body, because monologues like that don’t happen. We don’t wax and wane about these problems, we just have to deal with them in our own way, as Zola does, and they go on existing. By refusing to adhere to binaries, Bravo makes her film richer and more thoughtful. The ending is a bit too abrupt, but then again, it echoes reality—sometimes things end, just like that—so maybe that’s a small quibble. It’s hard to mind in the face of all the positives.
Zola is currently playing in wide theatrical release.