Zola is now available to rent on all video platforms.
By Palmer Rubin
In October of 2015, A’Ziah King, AKA “Zola,” began what would become the most infamous Twitter thread of all time. It featured everything: lots of suspense, double-crosses, betrayal, and a couple of sex workers navigating their situation as best as possible. At one point, James Franco tried to make a movie out of it. For obvious reasons, this ended up not happening (his younger brother, Dave, is an executive producer, FYI). Given the extremely unusual nature of the film’s existence, a lot of the buzz surrounded the obvious question: could a film based off a tweet thread work? The answer is yes, for the most part, but it also comes from not trying to force that narrative into something more conventional than it deserved.
Janicza Bravo, the eventual writer/director (along with co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, a playwright best known for Slave Play), is an unlikely choice for what would otherwise be a pretty standard crime picture. It’s very much not that, because of her, Harris and the actual Zola, who was an executive producer as well. Zola is a far more abstract and surreal film than its trailers would suggest, so your mileage will end up varying depending on what you’re looking for. For someone like me, that is nothing but a good thing. No matter what you end up thinking of it, you can hardly claim this doesn’t feel like a swing for the fences.
Zola (Taylour Paige) is a part-time waitress and part-time stripper, trying to make ends meet and living with an unnamed partner. Her life in both professions is tedium. For anyone who has worked either job (or both), tedium is the name of the game. Zola meets a woman named Stefani (Riley Keough) one day, a white woman speaking a broken appropriation of AAVE who is instantly obsessed with her. The two click on a really fundamental level as they bond first at the restaurant and then stripping at the same club together. The film literally flashes from the two facing one another at the restaurant to the strip club in what seems to be the same shot, both staring deeply into one another’s eyes. For two people as deeply lost as Zola and Stefani, this rare chance at genuine connection is electrifying. The latter abruptly invites the former to Florida to strip for a few days and make way more money than she ever has before. Zola is understandably nervous, but she’s eager for a chance to get to know her new friend and to have a little more financial security. The day of the trip arrives, the people along with them are nothing like Stefani promised, and the expectations of this brief gig go way farther than Zola ever anticipated.
You can spoil yourself to some degree by reading the original Twitter thread (a single Google search brings it up), which the film is somewhat faithful in adapting. It’s not entirely so, for the real Zola’s sake more than anyone else’s. The real Stefani is called Jessica, the real Derrek (her extremely awkward boyfriend played by Nicholas Braun) is called Jarrett, and the real X (her “roommate,” played by Colman Domingo) is called Z in the thread. The interplay between the four makes up the vast majority of the film, as Zola’s discomfort with them slowly grows throughout an increasingly murky amount of time. There is the Zola she projects for her own protection and the sensitive person underneath, and that is hopefully the Zola the real Zola wanted the world to see.
The other three end up being defined by the ways they hold power over Zola by virtue of existing, and the ways Zola has to manipulate the escalating stakes in order to keep herself safe and make her way home. The film holds its entire runtime in a dreamlike haze, often fading between Zola and Stefani as mirror images of one another while twinkling bells and a harp (the film’s motif) plays behind them. There’s such a sense of Stefani and X and Derrek projecting themselves at every given moment as stronger than they are, more together than they are, eventually using their dynamic with Zola as ways to enforce that feeling of control. The part that scares them is that Zola isn’t just smart, she knows how to make money more efficiently than they do once the gig changes from stripping to sex work. Even as she and Stefani increasingly fall out as the latter endangers the former (with the two men threatening that they know where she lives), Zola still tries to look out for Stefani since no one else will. This can often overshadow Paige in spite of what a tremendous performance she gives, as she’s mainly the foil for Keough’s antics and self-destructive tendencies. Even as Zola interrupts in voiceover to give her opinion of a situation, it’s still one woman being forced to keep her composure intact despite barely getting enough sleep and having her life threatened multiple times.
The film can be very funny when it wants to be, mainly through Braun’s Derrek being the single most pathetic human being ever to live (the kind who literally whimpers for Stefani’s approval in one breath and threatens to kill her in the next, that kind of guy). Zola is never the butt of the joke, thankfully, given that she’s the only halfway sympathetic person here. Yet even with everything going on, the film isn’t interested in demonizing anyone, even when people are badly hurt or traumatized in the process. It’s not interested in demonizing sex work or stripping, it simply is the base reality. Even when the film launches into a film-within-a-film of Stefani’s perception of the preceding events, itself based on a Reddit post the real Jessica wrote trying to discredit Zola, it ends up feeling more sad and desperate than anything else. That’s kind of the point. The disconnect the film creates helps it to embrace its social media source material, complete with characters reading their texts directly to the camera instead of showing it on the screen. Social media is so integrated into our lives that there’s no longer any point in trying to pretend it’s a separate entity. To the film’s credit, it’s also not interested in whether or not that’s a bad thing. It simply is. The frenetic editing by way of Joi McMillon (best known for editing Moonlight, and doing just as well here) and Mica Levi (Under the Skin) and her ambient score integrates app notification sounds into beats of conversation and superimposed titles. It all feels both effortless and chaotic at the same time. Hell of a balancing act, all in the name of embodying every bit of pandemonium that Zola can’t get away from. Having one of cinema’s best editors and best composers helps immensely. If you’re noticing it’s becoming an A24 reunion party here, I’m at least happy that some of the most talented people from two of their best films are working together. A24 can often be criticized as being more about an aesthetic than about anything else, but when they knock it out of the park, they do. This is very much one of those times.
Bravo has already made a name for herself directing episodes of Atlanta, and her previous feature, a bizarro surrealist comedy called Lemon that wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor was it trying to be. Zola feels like an expansion of the kind of work she already likes to do, and it will hopefully give her more opportunities to do so in the future. If anything, it is such a highly personal thing that it doesn’t care about universal appeal, and not many films getting a nationwide theatrical release are willing to do that. Some would probably label these kinds of choices as pretentious, but it’s not really trying to insult anyone’s intelligence, even if it’s made by people very well aware of how human beings have trouble relating to each other. So I don’t know, I found it strangely touching in spite of everything, and that’s hopefully what Bravo and company were hoping for. If that’s the story Zola wanted to tell, I hope she got what she wanted. If anyone in this story deserves even a bit of good luck, it’s her.
I give Zola an A-.