Film & TV

Janicza Bravo’s ‘Zola’ is a Stylish, Sensory Experience

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“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

In 2015, Detroit-based waitress Aziah “Zola” King tweeted this, kicking off an infamous 148-tweet thread about the wildest road trip this side of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Six years later, director Janicza Bravo adapted the thread into a stylish A24 dramedy.

It would’ve been easy to turn King’s tweets into an offensive and exploitative film. Thankfully, Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris do justice to King and her incredible journey in “Zola” — a social media fever dream boasting an eclectic cast, razor-sharp dialogue and vibrant visuals. 

One night while waitressing, Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough), a loud, crass sex worker. After quickly becoming friends, Stefani asks Zola to come on a road trip, hoping to make thousands of dollars pole dancing in Florida with her pathetic boyfriend, Derek (Nicholas Braun) and dangerous pimp, X (Colman Domingo). 

What should’ve been a fun weekend quickly turns into a weekend of sex, violence and debauchery.

Adapting a Twitter thread is a daunting task. The source material is relatively short and this one is all over the place. However, Bravo (“Atlanta,” “Lemon”) and Harris’ (“Slave Play,” “Black Exhibition”) script elevates the thread into a smart, fast-paced script. This isn’t a movie about gratuitous sex but rather a commentary on the ugly truth of mixing social media with prostitution. “Zola” goes beyond the surface while remaining faithful to King’s words — even if it comes at the cost of an unsatisfactory ending.

Bravo’s direction and vision were perfectly suited for this movie. The visual aesthetic of the movie is fascinating, along with the intimate camera angles that feel claustrophobic and make the viewer feel like a fifth passenger in the journey. 

After Zola and Stefani bond over pole dancing, they stand face to face in the listless restaurant and Stefani asks, “Do you wanna go somewhere with me?” One by one, the lights in the restaurant go off. A few dim lights turn on and both women are now in the strip club — still facing each other — ready to dance. It’s a transfixing scene and representative of the rest of this visceral caper.

“Zola” is a rare social media movie that captures the language and sound perfectly. The director adds notification pings and tweet noises that are ingrained in the mind of every person. Bravo, Harris, composer Mica Levi (“Jackie,” “Under the Skin”) and cinematographer Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth,” “In Fabric”) know the way people consume social media and how to accurately depict it. The dialogue feels Sorkin-esque for the TikTok generation — speedy and funny — and delivered by a great cast.

Paige (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Boogie”) plays the titular character with lots of personality and confidence, matching the energy of King’s tweets. She nails the witty, deadpan voice-over.

Even though the movie is called “Zola,” Keough’s Stefani steals the show. Keough is an underrated actress and always gives good performances, and this one might be her best yet. Stefani’s voice is ridiculous and amusing, appropriate for the contemporary story Bravo and Harris want to tell. There’s a scene where Stefani attempts to tell her side of the story in a “movie-within-a-movie” moment and Keough does a masterful job breaking the fourth wall (A24: release the Stefani cut).

Braun (“Succession,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) channels Cousin Greg energy and raps “Hannah Montana” by Migos in the movie — a tremendous choice by Bravo. The great Domingo (“Selma,” “Euphoria”) is electric as X and convinces the audience he’s a frightening man. However, his accent work is purposely inconsistent and frustrating because the makers never give a reason for it. 

Paige’s chemistry with Keough (“Magic Mike,” “Logan Lucky”) is good but neither can convince the audience they hate each other. The movie could’ve been extended by 10 to 15 minutes to properly develop the disdain Zola develops for Stefani. 

The movie abruptly ends on a strange note. There are some tweets Bravo and Harris don’t cover, most of them toward the end of the thread, and as a result, the character arcs don’t feel complete. It’s a decision that doesn’t work given the movie is barely 85 minutes. 

This film begs the question of whether Zola is a reliable narrator. Well, on social media, who is?

“Zola,” rated R, is now playing in theaters. 

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