It’s the norm for screenplays to be adapted from novels, plays, short stories, and other mediums, but writer and director Janicza Bravo has broken new ground by developing her latest picture from a series of tweets. The 148-tweet thread in question was posted in 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King and went viral, starting with now meme-famous line ‘Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense’. If you haven’t already read the now-deleted chain of events, the black comedy plot follows the titular Zola (Taylour Paige) who works as a waitress and part-time stripper. One day, she serves sex worker Stefani (Riley Keough) who invites her on a wild weekend of ‘dancing’. A little reluctantly and rather naively, she takes her up on the offer, joining her, her gormless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and her apparent roommate who goes only by the name X (Colman Domingo) on a tempestuous road trip to Tampa Bay, Florida.
To the film’s credit, it really leans into the uniqueness of the source material and illustrates its contemporary origins in the visuals. There’s a rough and readiness to the cinematography, akin to the work of Sean Baker who notably shot his 2015 breakthrough hit Tangerine on an iPhone, but with digitally inspired flourishes befitting to the story. Mica Levi’s experimental score cleverly incorporates tweet notifications when directly quoting King’s posts, timestamps are seen in Apple’s instantly recognisable typeface, and Derrek continually refers to his love of Vine videos. These millennial storytelling elements all add to the very specific tone Bravo is aiming to achieve, reflecting the somewhat throwaway nature of our social media culture. Her stylised direction is graphic without being overly gratuitous, and the female lens gives a certain authentic sensitivity that might’ve gone amiss in the control of other filmmakers.
However, the novelty of the distinctive cinematic experience can only take the narrative so far and once you see past the bells and whistles of the craft, the story itself suffers from a lack of thrills and absence of heart. A sequence towards the end, based on a real-life Reddit post, calls the dependability of the protagonist into question, and this introduction of the idea of the unreliable narrator perhaps should’ve been discarded in drafts. As thought-provoking as it might be, it undercuts what comes before it, leaving the film without a moral compass to keep it moving in the right direction.
As we get the tale from her point-of-view, Zola herself is by far the most fleshed out character in the piece. Paige portrays her strength and sass with aplomb, and effectively expresses her disbelief at the situation around her. The other three players are more thinly sketched, names changed and attributes enhanced to serve the entertainment value in Bravo’s script, which she has co-written with Jeremy O. Harris. Braun is an exaggerated extension of the pathetic, bumbling figure he’s become well known for in HBO’s Succession, and though he is the catalyst for the film’s funniest moments, there’s an alarming creepiness to paranoid douchebag Derrek that makes him a fascinating presence. Domingo’s X is more typically villainous, as mysterious as he is menacing. The less said about him the better for reasons you’ll discover when you watch the film. Probably the most interesting and dynamic performance is from the hipster distributor A24’s darling Riley Keough as ‘this bitch here’ Stefani. Masking her motivations in mimicry, she takes on the dialect, mannerisms, and stereotypical personality traits of Zola, perhaps in an effort to endear herself to her new friend or to protect herself behind this bizarre, cultural appropriating persona. Either way, it’s a complex, compelling turn.
A groundbreaking piece of indie cinema from Janicza Bravo that could potentially be a sign of things to come in the connection between social media and film, Zola is a darkly funny, playfully constructed picture. Though the subject matter is shocking, it might not quite be as ‘full of suspense’ as it promises in the beginning, but the flimsy source material is elevated and amplified by the four central performances, and it’s definitely worth stopping scrolling for.