How the OG tweet thread became an exhilarating film: Zola, reviewed
In the beginning was the tweet. 148 of them, to be precise: in October 2015, Detroit waitress Aziah ‘Zola’ Wells posted some photos on Twitter to her then small following, of herself and a petite blonde hottie, with the question: ‘Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense…’
The internet did want to hear the story. Very much. As Zola explained how she came to meet the blonde in Hooters, and went on an ill-starred roadtrip with her to Florida, everyone from James Franco to Missy Elliott tuned in, waiting for the next instalment with bated breath. This film, directed with elan by Janicza Bravo, more or less sticks to the tale told in the thread – which itself has a flexible relationship with the truth (the ‘bitch’ Zola fell out with has denied key elements of the story, and said that Zola is trying to ‘ruin her life’).
Taylor Paige is well-cast as Zola, a passive but observant waitress turned pole dancer with a boyfriend at home, who draws a firm line between stripping and prostitution. She is outshone by an electric Riley Keough as Stefani, her corn-rowed, platinum-blonde, lollipop-sucking nemesis. The pair meet when Zola takes Stefani’s order in a diner (not recognisably Hooters) and hit it off over their shared love of ‘hoeism’. Stefani invites Zola on a trip to Florida with her boyfriend (a wonderfully gormless Nicholas Braun, of Succession fame), and all hell begins to break loose as the girls try to make a bit of cash.
First up, Stefani, Zola’s new BFF, turns out to be less of a pole dancer than a straight-up prostitute. Secondly, the driver of the car she and Zola pile into is no chauffeur at all, but Stefani’s pimp: a deliciously threatening psycho played by Colman Domingo. X, as he’s known, isn’t brilliant at pimping (the poor lamb doesn’t have the tech know-how) but he is dab hand at murder. Stefani and Zola’s first night in Florida goes well – a quiet dance in a club is followed by a much more lucrative night in a hotel, where Zola successfully whores Stefani out to 20 men – but soon the sugar high ends, replaced by a more sober illustration of how women like Stefani and Zola can be trafficked. Braun provides much-needed mellow energy, as a sensitive soul who claims to have made his peace with his girlfriend’s job, but really wants her all for himself. When he threatens to kill himself unless she stops doing what she’s doing, everyone sniggers, unaware he’s being deadly serious.
It’s good fun, diving into the teeming underworld of an America that isn’t easily captured on film. In parts it reminds me of The Florida Project, the wrenching 2017 film about another impoverished single mother driven to sex work, under the cool eye of her six-year-old. A big problem here is that the film is too reliant on the tweets that underpin it: characters and plot feel thin, lifted wholesale from Twitter and not sufficiently padded out. And while the film is exhilarating at points, it tunes in and out like a dodgy radio, swaying from moments of high-octane excitement to looser scenes that are meandering, even a little dull.
In the end, the brilliant double-hander by Paige and Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, for anyone interested) saves the film from failure. But if Zola is intended to show that really good films can be wrested from Twitter threads, it doesn’t quite succeed.
Zola is in cinemas now.
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