‘Zola’ Adapts a Viral Twitter Saga Into a Gritty Blast of Feverish Cinema
“Zola” is here to remind us that fiction rarely outdoes reality. It could very well be that A’Ziah “Zola” King’s Twitter saga is one of the early examples of how movies will be taken from real life in the social media era. Her incredibly wild journey was not told in some bestseller scooped up by Hollywood, but in a series of 148 tweets that chronicled what began as a road trip with a new “friend,” and soon became a descent into the depths of America’s underbelly. King’s story was so harrowing and full of vibrant language that it instantly went viral in 2015. Now, from those tweets, director Janicza Bravo has made a striking movie that elevates urban struggles to the height of comic opera, with grit and heartbreak mixed in.
The story begins the way many misadventures commence in life, with a casual or unexpected greeting. Zola (Taylour Paige) is waitressing in Detroit when she happens to meet Stefani (Riley Keough), a customer dining with an obvious “sugar daddy.” The two young women hit it off when they discover they both also work as exotic dancers. Out of the blue, Stefani invites Zola to go on a road trip with her to Florida. She claims to be heading out to a club where the money to be made in one night is really good. Zola is a bit puzzled that this woman she barely knows would invite her, but she decides to come along. Also joining them on the trip are Stefani’s tame boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and a very mysterious man, X (Colman Domingo), who used to “take care of” Stefani. When the club turns out to be a bust, Zola is ready to head home, but X has other plans. He will get them more “clients” at a ritzy hotel. Zola finds out X is Stefani’s pimp and she has to go along with his agenda whether she wants to or not.
Under the direction of Bravo, in her sophomore effort following 2017’s “Lemon,” with a screenplay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris, “Zola” becomes a riveting testimonial. The aesthetic of a classic indie combines with our cyber age of storytelling. Much of Zola’s voice over is taken directly from her famous tweets, but the script then expands it all into a richer narrative that isn’t just transcribing what happened. As the film unfolds her tweets gradually pop up on the screen, which is a memorable way of demonstrating how true accounts translate to cinema. This is far from a static, “based on a true story” feature. Cinematographer Ari Wegner, whose baroque, magnificent work includes “Lady Macbeth” and last year’s stunning “True History of the Kelly Gang,” gives Zola’s urban world a grainy yet dreamy ambiance. Strip clubs become hazy dens of loneliness and the music by Mica Levi switches from intensity to an elegant harp. It’s not exploitative at all, but the representation of lives being lived within this particular environment. Bravo joins directors like Melina Matsoukas of “Queen & Slim” who find edgy poetry in how they capture life on the margins.
This is a fascinating, even funny, trip into the margins. For Zola, dancing and waitressing are simply how she makes ends meet, but her somewhat friendship with Stefani pulls her into a bizarre, dangerous corner. Sometimes even dangerous moments have their own kind of farce, as when X forces Derrek to stay in a flea trap motel while the girls dance. “Zola” feels like it is about real people you could meet today caught in extreme situations. Colman Domingo is one of the summer’s great villains, more menacing than any diabolical invention in an action movie. His X can be welcoming and charming in his slick clothes, but when Zola refuses to go along with being a call girl, he snaps and suddenly switches to an African accent, warning her he knows where she lives. “Zola” calls out the popular conceptions of street life we get in rap songs and cheap action movies. This is the real deal about human trafficking. It’s far from flashy. X drops the girls off at the hotel and expects money to be made. All Zola can do is at least help Stefani make a better Backpage ad with higher rates. The clients pour in, of all shapes and sizes, but how can Zola make it back home? This is one of those riveting films where it might be best to walk in without having read the real Zola’s story yet, because the experience has a real-time power. You feel as if you’re trapped in the car with these girls, and there is no idea what will happen next. It’s a story where an overly friendly hotel neighbor (Jason Mitchell) can lead you to serious trouble, and a sex worker never knows what could be waiting behind the door of some client. Like Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” colorful and strange characters hover in the background, like X’s curvy, pistol-packing girlfriend (or wife?), played by the voluptuous Sophie Hall.
Taylour Paige and Riley Keough give life to “Zola” with a blistering energy. Both actors have been in notable productions like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but here they transform into a pair that we root for while generating empathy. Paige’s Zola is too smart for any of this, and she knows it, while Keough as Stefani could be a good friend if she would be more trustworthy. Their banter is refreshingly bold and never feels like stale screenwriting. Nothing is sanitized and much of it is from the tweets, including small details like Zola being annoyed at the Florida club’s dress code for the stage (“I’m a full nude type of bitch”). One reason the Zola tweets became a hit is because they have the breathless pace of someone texting you something insane that just happened. “Zola” feels exactly like that with the rich style of a great filmmaker. Bravo never shies away from dark humor, because that also gives the story a special sense of tragedy. For example, Derrek begs Stefani to quit being a sex worker, but he’s too weak to walk out of the relationship, while Stefani is too selfish to realize why Zola is mad about being suckered into a Backpage arrangement with a violent pimp. Films like “Zola” are a refreshing reminder that there are still directors making real films about real people. Bravo’s movie joins those great stories about American lives that go off the rails, mostly out of the struggle to get by. The result is one of this year’s best films.
“Zola” releases June 30 in select theaters.