“You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It’s kind of long, but it’s full of suspense.” Thus began the Twitter thread spanning 148 tweets recounting a wild tale of stripping, prostitution and violence, over the course of one weekend in Tampa, Florida. Aziah Wells, who also goes by “Zola,” wrote the tweets in 2015 and acted as executive producer for the film adaptation. Films adapted from literature are, of course, nothing new. But films adapted from Twitter threads? This is a first.
The film opens like a dream sequence. Vibrant colors reminiscent of a Dario Argento film fill the screen and a simplistic score by Mica Levi of rising and lowering notes plays whimsically. The film opens just as the now viral Twitter thread began. Zola is working at Hooters when she meets “this white bitch.” From there, viewers are taken on a surreal fever dream adventure into the sleazy underbelly of Tampa. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, if Wonderland was populated with pimps, thugs and pole dancers.
Director Janicza Bravo, who until now has mostly stuck with writing and directing short films and episodes of television series (like the episode Juneteenth from Donald Glover’s series Atlanta), proves that her unique vision and style deserve to be experienced on the big screen. And that’s what Zola is. It’s an experience, and an incredibly unique one. That unique and unconventional approach to story telling is something that may take a little getting used to for audiences. However, Zola never allows that to happen. Rather than let you settle in and adjust to it, Zola rapidly transitions from the opening moments of heavenly music and vibrant colors to the dark dingy interior of a strip club. This would be a recurring theme throughout the movie. Switching from moments of gleeful vibrancy to scenes of aggression and real life danger, keeping viewers on edge and never allowing them to predict where the film is going next.
Phone alerts, dings and heart emojis never let you forget what this movie is: a story pulled directly from the glowing screens of social media on a tablet or a smart phone. Zola manages to keep a lighthearted humor to it despite the violence and the gratuitous and explicit behavior on display. That humor works so well largely due to the cast’s delivery and the sharp editing by Joi McMillon. McMillon was nominated for an Academy Award for her editing on the Best Picture winning film Moonlight, and her talents are on full display in Zola.
While the real life “Zola” acted as an executive producer, overseeing the transition of her own tweets to the big screen, the role of Zola in the film was played by Taylour Paige. Paige plays the part of the headstrong, but in over her head Zola perfectly. She’s young and naïve, but levelheaded. The entire cast is spot on. Riley Keogh plays Stephani (AKA This White Bitch) and Nicholas Braun plays Derrek, Stephani’s clueless, love struck boyfriend. However, Colman Domingo gives the stand out performance as “X,” Stephani’s pimp who within the blink of an eye can swap between a friendly and charismatic guy you may want to meet, and even have a beer with, to one that you’d be scared to be in the presence of.
Zola is like nothing I have watched in theaters before. A one of a kind blend of perversion and desperation spanning a wild 48 hours in the one place that could host such a story: Florida. 8.5/10