“You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
That quote opens director Janicza Bravo’s magnetizing, rollercoaster second feature film, Zola, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. It’s also how the viral 148-tweet thread that inspired the movie begins—with a question that beckons you to unravel a stranger than fiction tale about a South Floridian weekend gone wrong, using a particularly niche internet vocabulary to do so.
As detailed on Twitter in October of 2015, Aziah “Zola” Wells recounts a 48-hour cross-country road trip from Detroit to Tampa with a newly-befriended exotic dancer named Jess, who brings along her boyfriend and a man eventually revealed to be her pimp. What was initially promised to be a couple nights of easy cash by dancing at strip clubs quickly spiraled into a chaotic prostitution nightmare. In other words, it’s a story tailor-made for social media—prone to exaggeration, bursting with humor, suspense and deftly deployed turns of phrase.
From the moment Zola tweeted her story, the response was overwhelming, garnering thousands of retweets and shares. Culture websites discovered the thread and began suggesting its movie plot potential. It wasn’t long before studios got interested, and in 2016, Killer Films acquired the rights and tapped James Franco to direct a script from Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts. Two years later, Franco merged into a producing role (before eventually dropping off the project), and the movie’s new leadership under A24 re-assigned the script, tapping Bravo to take over.
Using Zola’s tweets, along with a 2015 Rolling Stone feature that dove deeper into the abbreviated journey, Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris bring Zola’s colorful and eccentric memories to authentic life. When the ragtag group arrives in Florida, Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), renamed for the movie, begin dancing at a podunk strip-bar, but their small paydays prompt Stefani’s pimp, X (Colman Domingo), to change course. He posts a photo of the pair on a backpage ad, forces them into a hotel room and brings in rough-looking male clients. This mostly becomes Stefani’s burden over the remainder of the weekend, as Zola tries to find them a way out of X’s clutches.
This could have been a movie that attempted to pace itself in Zola’s threaded mold, but Bravo wisely slows down and pays attention to the monotonous routines of driving, dancing and changing outfits, details that humanize and quiet what can often be a broad and loud movie. In this way, Zola offers some of the intimate, backstage stripper-family comedy in last year’s Hustlers without ever shying away from darker themes.
To keep things light, and inflect the right amount of quick-hit comedy that Zola’s Twitter feed produced, Bravo and Harris add sporadic narration, sometimes stealing Zola’s own tweets to relay her inner feelings during tenuous and confusing moments. When Zola and Jess Stefani text back and forth, Bravo has them talk to each other, as though they’re having face-to-face dialogue, which crackles once Stefani begins deceiving Zola and leading her further astray. It all adds to a spellbinding, harp-heavy soundtrack, often infiltrated by Twitter chirp sound effects and other cell phone pings. Those noises add another layer of humor but remain reminders that this story was strategically posted in bite-size pieces, then shared, retweeted and deciphered by thousands online.
These aural flourishes grasp at the universally tempting desire to narrativize our own experiences in real time, to consciously structure and highlight the more mundane parts of our life. Maybe not all of Zola’s story is accurate—in the Rolling Stone article, she admits to embellishing a suicide attempt and a gun battle, which the movie chooses to portray anyways in humorous and bloody form—but her inclination to punch up her story, accented by those repeating chirp sounds, feels particularly insightful. When using social media as a primary storytelling platform, it’s easier to focus on the peaks, to anticipate the potential dopamine rush after hitting “post,” even if that means, in this case, being surrounded by the threat of violence. A cocked shotgun inside a motel room portends a fatal ending—and at the same time it becomes a crucial, exciting plot development.
During a Q&A following the premiere, Bravo reminded the audience that the majority of stories written about Zola’s testimony initially questioned her portrayal of events, a persistent consequence of being a woman of color, she said. “When you submit your truth, the validity of the thing you’re talking about comes into question.” In her research, Bravo found that Stefani had actually submitted her own contradictory account of those two days (perhaps attempting to rehabilitate the damage to her image) in a Reddit post. As a way to acknowledge that rebuttal of facts, and highlight the message board medium where it was posted, Bravo inserts a brief perspective change more than halfway through the movie, abbreviating all the prior events from Stefani’s point of view.
Keough portrays this character with a trashy, appropriating accent, naive to the way Zola might interpret her vocabulary and affectation. Her boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, most popularly known for playing Cousin Greg on Succession), is a similarly negligent, but pure-hearted goof, who steals parts of the movie with his line readings (“Makin that shmoney,” he tells someone when asked why he’s in Florida). When the pair begins rapping to the radio or complaining about colleagues in the car, Zola can only offer looks of “WTF” befuddlement. The couple is immune to the kinds of deep-seeded racism that surrounds their southern trip, something Bravo suggests when the group’s Jeep zooms by a confederate flag on the highway, or by two police officers beating a black man in a driveway; the camera looks back while Stefani and Derrek hardly notice. This is not a place, an environment, that wants Zola to believe she’s a full human being, and Paige (incredibly skilled as a pole dancer), powerfully lends austere and knowing glances as though she is merely a spectator hoping to elude trouble.
That’s the extent to which Zola decides to be a deeper, more comprehensive story. The movie opts not to expand on the real-life fallout of Stefani’s pimp—given ferocity and an occasional Nigerian-accented bark by Colman Domingo—and the sex work he trafficked for years. Nor does it have much of an ending. Despite the cinematography and sharp attention to detail resembling Sean Baker’s Tangerine and The Florida Project, Bravo is instead keen on channeling the verve and thrills that a movie such as Spring Breakers provides. Like a tweetstorm, the pleasures of Zola are simpler, dramatically sketched and ephemeral—likely one of thousands of similar stories across the country just sitting in the drafts folder waiting for the right time to be shared.
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