‘Zola’ Film Review
As far as I can tell, Zola is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O. Harris and the real-life Zola, A’Ziah King, to mold the viral 148 tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm…and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.
Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in American Honey, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), and Derrek (Nicholas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.
Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.
After the infamous Twitter thread, Rolling Stone writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots).
Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Quentin Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.
This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe Internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.