ZOLA (2021)

Riley Keough (left) stars as “Stefani” and Taylour Paige (right) stars as “Zola” in director Janicza Bravo’s ZOLA, an A24 Films release.


In internet infamy lives the story of A’Ziah “Zola” King, a stripper whose epic, 148-tweet saga of Floridan misadventures and misdemeanors (and felonies) has been dubbed everything from #TheStory to “the first big poem of the digital era.”

The literary merits of Zola’s 2015 thread were quickly found and embraced by the online masses – mostly younger social media aficionados who decipher abbreviations and misspellings like a second language – who witnessed, beneath an umbrella of prostitution and sex trafficking, a happy helping of female bravery told with conviction, suspense, and humor.

Now, her Twitter tale has launched the seemingly inevitable genre of online posts-to-movie adaptations. The second feature film by Janicza Bravo, from a script she wrote with Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), “Zola” – or “@Zola”, according to the title screen – attempts to literalize and translate the theatrics and rhythm of King’s tweets onto the big screen. The result is an off-kilter and stylish production – which is particularly effervescent when promoting Bravo’s visual flair – but, ultimately, one with a story as abrupt as a character limit.

Working as a daytime waitress and a midnight stripper in Detroit, Zola (Taylour Paige) first meets Stefani (Riley Keough) on the day job. With a little help from a harp, Bravo paints this encounter majestically, as if star-crossed lovers had wavered through the galaxy and finally, brilliantly collided. Their friendship sparkles and is powered by a shared passion for pole dancing, but even Zola feels rushed when Stefani immediately invites her to the Sunshine State for a weekend with deep pockets and sandy beaches.

Nevertheless, she accepts the invitation and is soon southbound with Stefani, her lanky dork boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her unnamed, accent-switching “roommate,” played with an intoxicating and alluring effect by Colman Domingo.

Red flags and both strikes one and two quickly spring up in Zola’s mind, an apprehension fully realized once she uncovers her “friend’s” intentions: she hasn’t just been invited to dance, she’s been duped into prostitution.

Despite the horrific nature of the premise – a story that is unmistakably about sex trafficking – “Zola” maintains a deadpan quality akin to the Twitter tone struck by its original narrator. In a Rolling Stone interview that’s also attributed as the basis for the film (its writer, David Kushner, serves here as an executive producer), King said that the contrast between tone and subject was entirely deliberate, going so far as to say that her undeniably enchanting and entertaining voice made her readers “want to be a part of [the story].”

While truer to the source, Bravo and Harris’ choice to recreate that contrast drastically deadens the film’s sense of peril. Because Zola refuses to partake in her adopted pimp’s antics, rather becoming some soft of informal administrative assistant to him, she takes on a largely reactionary role in her own movie. Of course, while it was from that position that she went viral in 2015, it’s a stance that translates awkwardly to the big screen, especially since King’s unique voice, occasionally heard in voiceover, is largely missing.

The most detrimental impact the choice has on the film, however, is that the plot – which had the benefit of uniqueness and a flow of urgency on Twitter, an effect that nearly demanded readers to trudge on – simply isn’t stimulating. Paige plays Zola with a nearly unbreakable confidence, and while her Dominican trapper comes far from ever earning her respect, the gravity of the situation she’s in only ever manifests itself once or twice.

It’s important to mention that those couple of instances are quite thrilling, thanks in large part to Domingo’s unpredictable performance and up-and-coming Keough’s remarkable ability to step between fearlessness and false fronts. It’s disappointing that those capabilities are so sparsely uncovered.

That being said, Bravo, whose first feature Lemon was generally jeered, proves her potential as a filmmaker here. Her collaboration with cinematographer Ari Wegner is only one of the many successful young partnerships at work here, but it’s also the most apparent. A liquor stores turns into a dreamscape and even something as simple as Zola escaping to a hotel balcony for one single moment of peace feels visually poignant.

Even with its cinematic pizazz, when all is said and all is done, Zola’s a story best left not on the page, but on Twitter. That’s a first.

“Zola”, an A24 Films release, is now playing in select theaters.

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