So you still haven’t seen, director Janicza Bravo’s whirlwind film based on a viral Twitter thread? Fish out your favorite two-piece fit (see above picture for inspo) and tune into tonight’s one-night screening event for the film.
Zola sashayed into theatres on June 30, and now it’s available to watch online Wednesday, July 21. Watch from 9 p.m. ET at the Screening Room website of acclaimed indie studio A24. Tickets are $20, and they’ll allow you to watch the film on the web, Roku or Apple TV. The event will be hosted by actor and singer Janelle Monáe and followed by a Q&A with Bravo, executive producer A’Ziah “Zola” King and the cast of Zola. Is the film worth a watch? Hellz yes.
Zola grabs you from the first moment as the movie’s titular character beckons you to stop scrolling and pay attention. “You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” The film, based on a viral Twitter thread, pretty much sticks to its narrative source material. But thanks to new artistic elements and the exploration of darker themes in the cinematic retelling, I found myself just as invested in the hectic ride.
Zola, adapted from a 148-tweet thread published by King in 2015, stars Taylour Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as Stefani. Co-written and directed by Bravo, the movie premiered at Sundance in 2020, and finally landed in theaters on Wednesday.
Like the wild, winding story that first enthralled readers on Twitter, the film, clocking in at just under an hour and a half, packs a lot within its character limit. Dazzling, funny and often dark, the onscreen adaptation moves more slowly in its second half, but overall the film incorporates new themes and flourishes not present in the thread for a fresh take on the viral stripper saga.
Zola, the film’s protagonist, is waitressing at a restaurant when she meets Stefani, a blond customer with a high ponytail and appropriated accent. There’s an immediate bond between the pair, who relate to each others’ stripper backgrounds (in the tweet thread, Aziah recalls it as “vibing over our ho-ism”). After they exchange numbers, Stefani invites Zola on a 20-hour road trip to Tampa, Florida, to make some money.
The newfound friendship takes a turn almost instantly. Zola quickly tires of Stefani’s mannerisms and their rundown Tampa motel. Strike two comes when Zola learns Stefani’s “roommate” X, who accompanied them on the trip, is actually her pimp. The rest of the film chronicles Zola’s discomfort as she’s stuck in Tampa with the unsavory ensemble, which also includes Stefani’s pushover boyfriend, Derrek.
Before things take a darker turn, humor draws you into the characters’ world. One particularly hilarious, candid scene involves a prayer in a Tampa strip club, where a woman in the dressing room asks a higher power for men with “culture” and “good credit.”
But soon, it’s easy to start feeling too much discomfort to laugh anymore. In a cringeworthy scene at the strip club, Zola performs a dazzling strip routine. An old man muttering “you look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg” interrupts the sequence while tucking money into her thong.
Given the original Twitter thread, which barrels through its storytelling thanks to King’s humorous narration (complete with emojis and expressive use of capital letters), this film adaptation could’ve been more of an action-comedy. But Bravo leans into the material’s dark currents more than the Twitter thread does.
Over the course of the film, I viscerally felt awkwardness, anxiety and dread — when X threatens Zola for the first time, in the back of his car, we sense her fear. The film can be stomach-turning. There’s a grotesque montage midway through of older men having sex with Stefani, complete with shots of their aging, droopy nether regions. With the director’s spin, the audience is pushed to experience the intensity of the situations more directly than it could reading King’s thread.
The outfits in Zola are an impeccable detail. Stefani and Zola step out of the car and into Tampa in all-pink and all-blue getups. At the beginning of the film, we see them standing a foot apart and facing each other in a dreamlike scene, with twinkling harp music in the background. This image not only introduces the audience to the film’s artistic flourishes, but also the bond between the pair. I would’ve liked to understand their fast friendship more than the film allowed for, as there’s only a small amount of time before Stefani is clearly not as she seems.
Shot on 16mm film, Zola has a grainy, vintage feel, yet it also feels uniquely digital. A cellphone chime plays an annoying number of times as Stefani and Zola message each other. In a later scene, Zola dials X while she’s in a hotel room uncomfortably outnumbered by unknown men, and gets a brutal, echoing dial tone. It all feels literal, reminding us of the material on which the story is based.
A few scenes in the second half of the film drag. When Zola, Stefani, X and Derrek spend time in a nice hotel, and then again at X’s apartment in Tampa, not much seems to happen. The ending, less tidy than that of the Twitter thread, is unsatisfying after all Zola endured.
But in all, Zola feels like a whirlwind film that introduces wacky, memorable characters. Fans of the Twitter thread may be surprised by this take on Zola’s story but will probably find something new to like in the thread’s cinematic incarnation.
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