It was only a matter of time until a Twitter thread inspired a major motion picture. Long before seeing Janicza Bravo’s film, I absorbed the 148 tweets scribed by Aziah “Zola” King. David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article was also an essential read. While the cinematic potential was evident, how do you stretch a social media post into a 90-minute film? Despite not having the densest source material, Bravo pulls it off with a surprising amount of wit. Capturing the tweet thread’s spirit, Zola is bonkers, enthralling, and not overly long. Of course, the movie could’ve used an extra ten minutes.
Taylour Paige proved that she could go toe to toe with Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In Zola, she demonstrates her leading lady potential as the titular waitress/stripper. As “The Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” goes, Zola meets a young woman named Stefani (Riley Keough) at her restaurant. Sharing a mutual passion for pole dancing, Stefani invites Zola on a cross-country trip to Florida where they can make some serious bank. Zola agrees without giving it a second thought, although she signs up for more than she bargained for. Stefani is more than just a stripper and she pulls Zola down the sex worker rabbit hole with her. Along the way, Zola must also deal with Stefani’s aggressive pimp (Colman Domingo) and clingy boyfriend (Nicholas Braun).
With the characters constantly texting and consuming social media, Zola obviously takes place in modern-day. Bravo presents the story through a gritty 70s lens, however. This complements the narrative, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a classic grindhouse picture. On top of that, Twitter is a cesspool of lewd comments and trollish antics. So, it makes sense that a film that spawned from Twitter would be rough around the edges. Unlike most of the stories you skim through on Twitter, though, Zola has something of substance to offer.
As unnatural as the circumstances are, the actors here couldn’t feel more authentic. While much of Zola’s dialogue is conveyed in an inner monologue, Paige does more talking through her expressions. It’s a look that constantly asks, “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” Even when being threatened by a violent pimp, though, Zola doesn’t lose her cool. Casting lesser-known actors may’ve been necessary due to the film’s budget, but this direction benefits the experience. If you had Rihanna playing Zola and Amanda Seyfried as Stefani, it’d be much harder to buy this unbelievable, mostly true story.
While Zola is a faithful, well-executed adaptation of the tweet thread, it could’ve borrowed a few more notes from Kushner’s article. If you want the whole story, Kushner explores how accurate Zola’s account is and what happened to these people after. Bravo is primarily interested in the titular character’s point of view, however. With exception to a brief scene that shifts to Stefani’s perfective, the film doesn’t provide much insight outside of Zola’s tweets. At the very least, some text elaborating on the aftermath would’ve been a welcome way to close out the film. Even if the ending is a bit underwhelming, Zola is a wild ride with echoes of Spring Breakers and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.