Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
In 2015, a little-known Twitter user named Aziah King posted the first words of a 148-tweet saga: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
The tale that followed — a stripper road trip to Florida involving murder, human trafficking, and an attempted suicide — seemed too wild to be true. But #TheStory, as it was called, turned into a Twitter phenomenon. Rolling Stone confirmed it actually happened, albeit with some major dramatic embellishments and disagreements about the facts.
Zola, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is as compelling as its Twitter source material. Adapted from King’s thread and directed by Janicza Bravo, it’s a stylish dramatization of the dramatization, polishing a social media narrative into something neater and a little more conventionally dramatic, but also bringing it to life with an excellent cast and vivid look.
What’s the genre?
A mix of dark comedy, thriller, and road trip movie. Zola has drawn comparisons to Hustlers and Spring Breakers, which isn’t unfair. Like the former, it’s about sex workers running their own hustle in a world that underestimates them, and like the latter, it’s a sexed-up movie where young women are drawn out of their depth into a criminal underworld. But it’s not overtly political like Hustlers, and it’s less meandering and gonzo than Spring Breakers.
What’s it about?
Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) is a sometimes-stripper and current waitress in Detroit. (She’s also the only character named after her real-life counterpart, with the rest being thinly fictionalized.) She meets a fellow dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough) in a chance encounter, and Stefani invites Zola on a trip to Florida with her doormat boyfriend Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) and imposing “roommate” X (Colman Domingo). But Stefani isn’t telling the whole story, and if you’ve read the Zola tweet thread, you’ll know roughly — but not exactly — where this is going.
X turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and he posts the two women’s pictures on escort site Backpage. Zola undercuts his authority and refuses to play along, but she’s still stuck in Florida, toeing the line between earning X’s grudging respect and avoiding his violent wrath. Stefani pleads with her to stay, but it’s not clear whether she’s X’s victim, his collaborator, or both. Meanwhile, Derrek — who everyone treats with comically blatant contempt — is getting more unstable by the minute.
What’s it really about?
You don’t need to read complicated subtext into Zola. It’s a fast-moving caper about a woman who’s dragged into an objectively frightening situation with unpredictable and untrustworthy companions, but it’s also constantly exasperated by their idiocy. King has said she wrote the Twitter thread to draw attention to human trafficking, but that element has gotten cut significantly in the movie.
Similar to Hustlers, the film offers an alternative to decades of cringeworthy, one-dimensional depictions of sex workers. (A few years after the Twitter thread, stereotypical sex trafficking narratives helped pass a real law that drove many sex workers offline, a depressing fact noted by journalist Melissa Gira Grant.) Zola and Stefani are clearly at risk and sometimes powerless. But that’s tempered by Zola’s constant strategizing and wry asides to the audience, a spot-on translation of the Twitter thread’s savvy but incredulous tone.
Is it good?
It’s gorgeous and engaging. Zola and Stefani’s elaborate, large, and perfectly coordinated wardrobes seem like a clear but successful bit of artistic liberty. (Granted, I might be wrong about that. King did attend the Sundance screening in a striking hot pink dress.) The film’s vision of Florida is a mix of mid-’10s airspace blandness and timeless grunge — like the grim, lightless motel room where Derrek’s breakdown begins.
The best part of the film is simply watching the cast translate the tweets’ stage direction. Keough and Paige develop a quasi-romantic love-hate relationship, Domingo shifts between accents as he slips between pragmatism and rage, and Braun plays Derrek like an alternate-universe version of Cousin Greg with no money or connections — which is to say, a complete mess.
Zola is less successful when it gets overambitious. It abruptly shifts into Rashomon-style unreliable narration at one point, breaking the fourth wall to remind us that there are different accounts of Zola’s story on Twitter and Reddit. But there’s no meaningful follow-up or even real ambiguity about who’s telling the truth, so it ultimately feels random and unnecessary.
That said, it’s a rare overextension of a competent Extremely Online aesthetic. Films struggled for years to depict text messages on screens or pop-up graphics. Zola’s characters just speak their text messages aloud, complete with emoji; an effect that is deliberately ridiculous but also perfectly reflects how texting can feel almost as natural as speech. And while the film doesn’t disguise its origin as a Twitter thread, it generally doesn’t treat it as a gimmick, either — because in 2020, the internet is just where people share the weirdest, funniest, and most frightening moments of their lives.
How can I actually watch it?
Zola is set for a US release this summer by A24, and Sony has acquired international distribution rights for a future release.