2015's viral 148-post Twitter thread about a Florida trip gone wrong comes to the screen, complete with candy hues, a bold approach and a savvy dissection of social media.
November 18, 2021
It wasn't just a Twitter thread — it was the Twitter thread. Whether you read Aziah 'Zola' King's viral 148-post stripper saga live as it happened back in October 2015, stumbled across the details afterwards as the internet lost its mind or only heard about it via Zola's buzzy trailer, calling this stranger-than-fiction tale a wild ride will always be an understatement. Its instantly gripping opening words, as also used in Janicza Bravo's (Lemon) savvy, sharp, candy-hued tweet-to-screen adaptation, happen to capture the whole OMG, WTF and OTT vibe perfectly: "you wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense."
In the film, that phrase is uttered aloud by Zola's eponymous Detroit waitress (Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom). Still, the movie firmly embraces its origins. For those wondering how a filmmaker turns a series of tweets into a feature, Bravo handles the task with flair, energy, enthusiasm and a clear understanding of social media's role in our lives. Much of the phrasing that the real-life Zola used has made its way into the conversational script, which was co-written by playwright Jeremy O Harris. Each time that occurs, the film echoes with tell-tale swooshes, whistles and dings. But those words and alerts are just the starting point; as Zola's chaotic narrative unfurls, it comes to life with a mix of the hyperreal, the loose and the dreamy. It doesn't merely tell a tale taken from the tweetstorm to end all tweetstorms, but also uses every aesthetic choice it can to mirror the always-on, always-posing, always-sharing online realm.
The other person that Zola refers to in her initial statement is the cornrow-wearing, blaccent-sporting Stefani (Riley Keough, The Lodge), who she serves at work, then joins on a jaunt to Florida. They immediately hit it off, which is what inspires the invite to head south — a "hoe trip" is how Zola describes it — however, what's meant to be a girls' getaway for a stint of lucrative exotic dancing in Tampa soon gets messy. The drive is long, and Stefani's boyfriend Derreck (Nicholas Braun, Succession) quickly dampens the mood with his awkward, try-hard schtick. Then there's X (Colman Domingo, Candyman), who, while introduced as Stefani's roommate, is actually her pimp. Trafficking Zola into sex work is the real plan of this working holiday, she discovers, but she's ferociously adamant that she won't be "poppin' pussy for pennies".
As the woman both relaying and riding Zola's rollercoaster of a story, Paige is fierce and finessed. It's a tricky part; making the dialogue sound authentic, and also like it could've just been rattled off on social media with a mix of emojis and all caps, requires a precise tonal balance, for starters. So does ensuring that Zola always feels like a real person, especially given the tale's ups and downs. That said, Paige is guided by Bravo at every turn, with recognising how things play online and how they pan out in reality — and the frequent disconnection between the two — one of the filmmaker's biggest masterstrokes. That's exactly what a flick that's based on a Twitter thread should offer, rather than just mining posts for punchy content that's already proven popular. Using the platform as source material definitely doesn't equal an endorsement here. Instead, it sparks a brash and bouncy feature that interrogates its inspiration and the mechanism that turned it into a whirlwind, rather than serves up a cinematic retweet.
Zola also draws upon David Kushner's Rolling Stone article 'Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted', because 148 tweets can't cover everything. Nonetheless, plenty of the film's success emanates from its almost-surreal 16mm imagery and its airy, eerie-scored atmosphere, too. Its namesake's early words aren't misleading: this is a narrative filled with suspense. The waves it surfs in its mood and stylistic decisions cause just as must jitteriness, though — in a fantastic way. Zola hangs together immaculately, and it constantly feels as if Bravo, cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), editor Joi McMillon (If Beale Street Could Talk) and composer Mica Levi (Monos) could go anywhere. That's a powerhouse lineup of talent, after all, with the latter trio's resumes spanning some of the killer films of the past decade: Lady Macbeth, In Fabric, True History of the Kelly Gang, Moonlight, Under the Skin and Jackie all included.
Alongside Paige, Zola's cast is equally impressive, even if it initially appears as if a few might simply stick to type. Keough could've stepped off of American Honey's set and onto this one, and not just because they're both road-trip movies, yet adds another tricky yet memorable performance to her filmography. Written into her character, and conveyed in her portrayal as well, is a dissection of cultural appropriation. Stefani acts like she's Black in lieu of forming her own identity, is wilfully ignorant of that fact while being openly racist, and provides a pinpoint-precise portrait of oblivious, exploitative, all-devouring whiteness. Similar ideas bubble through Braun's work as the gangly and bungling Derrek — a twist on his acclaimed Cousin Greg persona, but with far less cash — and the concept of adopting a part and facade also lingers in Colman's scarily compelling and icily charming efforts.
These are layered performances, befitting the rich and multi-faceted film they're in. Nothing in any movie is ever just one thing, but Zola demonstrates that notion with commitment and command. It's there in the feature's bold approach, including its eagerness to unpack its genesis on several levels. It's there in the film's gleaming yet never glamorous appearance as well, which almost pitches itself into the world of fantasy while steadfastly recognising that nothing about its story is seductive or alluring. And, it echoes in the tiniest of choices. Take an early moment, in a bathroom, where both Zola and her new pal take a leak. Shot from above, this is the smartest peeing scene you're ever likely to see, and expresses so much about its central duo purely by peering at their urine. Turning tweets and piss into a must-see movie? That's cinematic alchemy.