Runtime: 87 minutes
Director: Janicza Brown
Writers: Janicza Brown, Jeremy O. Harris, A’Ziah King (based on the Tweets by), David Kushner (based on the story by)
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
By Tom Moore
The second its trailer dropped, the latest film from A24 and writer/director Janicza Bravo, “Zola”, showed a lot of promise in delivering something truly one of a kind simply because of what it’s adapted from.
There have been plenty of films whose stories derived from books, video games, historical events, news stories, and plenty of other things, but there really haven’t been any that have been adapted directly from social media. With it becoming a pivotal part of modern living and plenty of wild stories and trends spreading across it, it’s surprising to me that there aren’t more straight-up adaptations of social media events, or at least some that come to mind, like “Zola”. The film is based on a 148 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King depicting a wild road trip with another stripper from Detroit that led to the story going viral and being featured in Rolling Stone through David Kushner’s article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.”
Bravo never forgets the roots of the material she’s working with and does an amazing job making social media a vital part of “Zola’s” DNA. Throughout the film, it’s easy to hear the whistling chime of a Twitter notification but think nothing of it. However, it’s actually Bravo likely acknowledging how certain moments in the film are based or ripped from its central Twitter thread and it’s a really great way to key your audience into what’s real and what’s not. It made every moment followed by a Twitter whistle not only kind of funny, but also more meaningful and grander regardless how big or small the moment really is. Social media is also used nicely through the film’s main relationship between Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) since it’s a key part to their relationship and their profession.
Within the first act of the film, you instantly feel entranced by the lives that Zola and Stefani lead and like you’re a part of their relationship. Cinematographer Ari Wegner and composer Mica Levi combine their talents with Bravo’s direction to create this almost dreamlike fantasy filled with bright lights, sparkles, and hypnotic music that draw you deeper into their world. The very physical pole dancing sequences initially pull you in with its sexual charge and the great physicality brought by Paige to the role and then makes you feel something for Zola as the camera pulls back to show the patrons and vibe of the club she dances in. It’s this great mix of emotions established visually along with Paige making Zola instantly likeable through her confidence and self-assurance that immediately make you align with her. You especially align with her over Stefani – whose overly-friendly personality and shadiness immediately give off red flags.
The bond that Zola and Stefani develop through texts and some road trip videos really comes through because of how the performances really drive these moments. The entire sequence of them talking out their texts to each other is hilarious with how it really showcases their personalities and oddly relatable. The whole time they’re taking this long video at the start of their road trip perfectly displays their differing personalities when it comes to certain situations. While Zola can be shown to know when something is a little off, Stefani just goes with the flow even when she should just say no or think before she does something. It even perfectly shows how Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) is desperate for attention – something that will only drive his paranoia throughout the film. More importantly though, it cozies us into the wild and unpredictable ride that is the rest of the film.
The way that Zola describes her own story being “kind of long, but full of suspense” ends up being spot-on. The pacing can definitely run a little slow with the patience this film has in getting to its craziest parts and keeping viewers in the dark as to where things are going. However, these aspects are kind of what makes “Zola’s” big story turns so shocking and wild. The places that Stefani’s adventures take Zola range from strange sexual encounters to suspenseful sequences that leave you unsure of how things will shake out. Any time Stefani’s “friend” X (Colman Domingo) opens his mouth, you’re left on pins and needles with how dark and unpredictable he is, which is elevated through Domingo’s incredible performance. Braun is equally as unpredictable as Derek with his paranoia making you fearful of his every move. Not to mention, Stefani basically has no shame and takes things to mind-blowing levels of depravity. She truly is the biggest red flag from start to finish with how shady she can be, but she isn’t without her own recognition of her flaws. The ending tone of a surprising sequence where Stefani takes control of the storytelling and elements of Keough’s great performance, one of many in her excellent career, really add a slightly genuine reason to care for Stefani and shows that maybe she even knows what she’s doing isn’t right.
However, it’s this recognition that sort of makes her worse because she’s not only accepted it but is trying to bring Zola to her level. Try as she may though, Zola remains an immovable force as Paige’s award-worthy performance really boasts into Zola’s confidence and fearlessness. Her efforts to stand up against X and resist Stefani’s lifestyle choices don’t go unnoticed and are really a driving force for why she’s so likeable and admirable. For all of the great darkly comedic and sometimes darkly dramatic moments this film offers, it’s greatest strengths are in its titular character and the arc she goes through. Throughout the film, you’re always in Zola’s corner and mind frame with everything that’s happening. At times, you can’t help but nod your head in approval with her views and narration that pop in from time to time. Her end is what really stands out though as it’s a visually empowering moment of self-worth and is incredibly fitting for the arc she goes through.
“Zola” can easily be a fun watch in its own right with the fantastical visuals and zany insanity it’s central road trip presents but ends up being something so much more with the cautionary tale it presents on toxic friendships that sees innovative storytelling and incredible performances, especially from Paige, elevate the experience.