It’s not often that you can say a film based on a viral Twitter thread makes it to the big screen, but here we are. Back in 2015 A’ziah ‘Zola’ King took the social media platform by storm with her 148-tweet thread documenting her crazy weekend in Florida, opening with the iconic line “Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It’s kind of long, but it’s full of suspense.” Hashtagged #TheStory, the stranger-than-fiction tale has captivated many, with Rolling Stone‘s David Kushner even publishing an article interviewing those involved. So when a director was linked to the project back in 2018 – A24 quickly snapped up the distribution rights.
Co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo, Zola centres on Detroit waitress and stripper Zola (Taylour Paige) who’s convinced by her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough) to go on a ‘fun’ weekend trip to Tampa, Florida. Heading out on a road trip with music blaring and selfies galore – the getaway seems to go off to a good start. However, events quickly spiral out of control thanks to an unpredictable and controlling pimp (Colman Domingo) along with Stefani’s dim boyfriend (Nicholas Braun).
The 90-minute runtime races by with frenetic pacing, complete with a number of twists and turns, as the once rose-tinted Florida road-trip descends into a dark fever-dream. Opening with an almost romantic fantasy element, the two strippers meet at a restaurant and instantly strike up a sisterhood. We watch on as the pair message non-stop, soundtracked to exclamations of “sis!” constant ding dings and swooshes, as Bravo ingeniously brings to life the new media which the flick is based on. However, as time goes on, personas and accents begin to slip – and the once breezy road trip quickly evolves into a tense and unsettling drama highlighting the shocking tactics of sex-traffickers and predatory men.
Events unravel through the eyes of Zola, with Taylour Paige impressing as the dancer who’s forced to navigate her way through a horrendous situation using her smarts. While there’s not a huge amount of exploration of her motivations and emotions, Paige brings a restrained presence to the role, relying predominantly on body language and impressive side-looks. Keough also shines as the deceiving friend, who’s moments of vulnerability elicit a surprising amount of sympathy for the character, but it’s hard to distinguish whether she really is a victim or part of the hustle. Colman Domingo terrifies as the unpredictable pimp – often switching between accents and personas – while Nicholas Braun completely embraces the hapless boyfriend boyfriend.
With superb character-driven performances and a gripping narrative, Zola is the wildest and most unexpected films of the year so far. You’ll truly go down the rabbit hole with this trippy but stylish flick, which features one of the most audacious scrolling scenes in film yet. However, despite the dreamy aesthetics, punchy pacing and whip-smart script, the final act disappointingly ends with a fizzle rather than a bang.