Just five years ago, many people probably would have never guessed that a simple tweet from A’ziah “Zola” King: “wanna hear a story about why me & this b***h here fell out???????? It's kind of long but full of suspense,” would be woven into one of the greatest stories ever told.
Now, almost the exact phrase is uttered by Taylour Paige as Zola, in the first-ever film to be adapted from a Twitter thread (also supported by the source material of a Rolling Stone article). Just as thrilling as the 140-ish-tweet thread, director Janicza Bravo weaves together a crime tale that is part The Florida Project and Spring Breakers, with a heaping dose of unique hood perspective. In a Q&A session after the film's world premiere, Paige accurately called the film a "period piece." Just as this year's award-season favorite, Uncut Gems, transports movie watchers back to 2012, Zola does the same for 2015, accompanied by the rise of short-form social media and the Migos.
Most of the film is kept intact by going tweet by tweet, chronicling what happens right after a chance meeting between King (née Wells) and Jessica Rae Swiatkowski, who is given the name Stefani for the film and played by Riley Keough. Just like the thread, their friendship moves at such a quick pace that Zola is soon headed to Florida to dance with Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (actual name Jarrett Scott, portrayed by Nicholas Braun), and her “roommate” X (actual name Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe, referred to as “Z” in King’s story and played by Colman Domingo).
The road trip takes them from Detroit all the way down south, and shenanigans ensue. Things appear to be going smoothly until they stop at a seedy motel. This is when Zola and Derrek slowly begin to realize that something is off. They then go to the strip club, where Stefani is obsessed with taking selfies with Zola, sending some of them to X, which triggers several red flags for Zola. As is soon revealed, X isn’t Stefani’s roommate--he’s her pimp. Not only is he interested in having Stefani “trap” for him over the weekend, but he also wants Zola in on the business too, and has devious, threatening ways of convincing her. Things continue to take dark turns as Zola tries to figure out how the hell she got here and how they can escape.
Zola is primarily held up by its performances and some stylish directing by Bravo. Paige is an understated marvel in the film. She doesn’t have an exceptional amount of dialogue, with a lot of her dialogue being Zola’s narration. However, even with much of her acting being non-verbal, such as Zola’s assortment of facial expressions, she still shines. Keough is also stellar as she taps into her inner Bhad Bhabie or Woah Vicky to channel this character who seemingly performs in verbal blackface for the entire film. This is a performance that needed to come off as outrageous in order to work and she elevated it to that levels and then some.
Domingo, fresh off of an acclaimed turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, proves that he is a true chameleon. As the film starts, Domingo’s charisma-drenched performance is wonderful, but it seems like a role that could be inhabited by anyone. Yet once he flips the switch on X’s more volatile side, it is apparent that no one else could play this role.
But the good in the film also comes with some missteps. The first half of the film is so incredible that the second half comes across as lacking energy. There are truly laugh-out-loud hilarious moments throughout the first portion of the film. Bravo’s ability to juggle the comedy and serious subject matter, just as King did with her tweets, shines through. It is also interesting how Bravo illustrates the dichotomy between the contrasting backgrounds of Zola and Stefani. As King noted on Twitter when she just dropped the thread, she’s from an upper-middle-class background, and that is seen through her thoughts and actions. For example, Zola appears to have completely different viewpoints on sex work than Stefani does, and it inevitably changes the trajectory of their situation.
Midway through the film, it never really recovers from some questionable editing choices and the film remains stagnant after reaching such high peaks early on. The ending also feels very open-ended and incomplete. There are multiple tweets at the end of King’s thread that aren’t included in the film, such as her type of “Where Are They Now” recap of what happened to all of the players in the story. Having these parts of the story in the movie would have been able to solidly wrap the film up instead of a sort-of awkward “driving off into the sunset” moment.
Despite the fact that the film doesn’t quite follow through after hitting its stride, the movie is still a good time. Bravo continues to be a filmmaker to watch and these obnoxious characters will stay with viewers for some time. Long live Twitter.
Zola premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020. It will be released later this year via A24 Films.
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