Zola review – stylish viral tweet-based sex and crime caper

Fantastic performances, including breakout Taylour Paige, and confident direction from Janicza Bravo lift an often bumpy ride

The story of Zola seduced the attention of the internet back in 2015 not only because of its high quotient of narrative left turns and lurid details, but because it showed the hitherto unseen power of Twitter as a tool for compelling longform storytelling. In the space of about 148 tweets, Detroit waitress Aziah “Zola” Wells spun a staggering tale of a trip to Florida that went horribly wrong with conviction and wit sparking the interest of Hollywood with an impassioned battle for rights. Initially James Franco won out but the production was shelved after accusations of sexual misconduct and the following year, the indie director Janicza Bravo came onboard, a development that seems all the more like kismet given both the subject matter and the importance of a woman of colour being given the reins.

It’s a tale that seemed too juicy to be true and after some digging at the time, it was discovered to be partly a fabrication, something both the real Zola and the film admit to, a knowing play to an audience willing to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained with a far-fetched string of events. But the basis of the story remains true even if some of the names have been changed. Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) while serving her at a restaurant and the two hit it off. When Stefani invites her on a road trip to Florida, with the express purpose of making considerable money dancing, she jumps at the chance. Arriving to pick her up isn’t just Stefani but her awkward boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, AKA Cousin Greg from Succession) and a mysterious unnamed friend (Colman Domingo). There’s a sense of adventure in the early stages of the journey but as they get closer, Zola starts to question exactly who she’s travelling with and as the night gets underway, she finds herself trapped in a dangerous game of prostitution, pimps and murder.

What keeps us glued during the first act isn’t just Zola’s sensationalist story but Bravo’s unexpected directorial choices. There’s inevitable grit but she chooses magical over social realism, framing the story like a fucked up fairy tale complete with a dreamy Mica Levi score, punctuated by the sounds of Twitter. The script, co-written by Bravo and Slave Play playwright Jeremy O’Harris, also retains the humour of the original thread, again framing an increasingly dark story with a light touch. There’s a wholly different way to make Zola, as a harrowing cautionary tale, but the pair rightfully decide to tell it for the most part with a wink.

It would have also been too easy to rely on gaudy aesthetics to accompany Zola’s descent but instead Bravo has enlisted cinematographer Ari Wegner, known for her stark work on Lady Macbeth and the second season of The Girlfriend Experience and there’s a delicate push and pull from them both as they successfully capture a seedy underworld yet sustain a distinctive artfulness. Bravo is an accomplished hand and her stylistic choices, which often come right out of left field, avoid gimmickry for the most part. It’s a bold calling card even if the script isn’t always quite as confident, because at a swift 90 minutes, the film has some pacing issues.

There’s an unstructured messiness to the plotting which I initially liked, sticking true to reality or at least the heightened reality that Zola created for us in her original thread, and for the first half we’re locked in – but near the final act, attention drifts. It’s not exactly the wild ride some might expect (and some on Twitter have been claiming with Uncut Gems and Spring Breakers not proving to be entirely fitting comparisons) with Bravo choosing to contrast the story’s eccentricities with a sometimes mundane look at the lives on show. There’s not a great deal of plot to fill the time and instead as the film moves along, it’s both her eye-grabbing direction and her actors that sustain our interest.

Keough has developed a knack for inhabiting chilly characters with an unknown nature, in last year’s Sundance horror The Lodge as well as the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, but here she opts for the opposite, loudly presenting herself as a cocksure stripper-cum-prostitute with an uncomfortably affected accent, speaking in a specifically problematic way that irks Paige in one standout car scene. It’s Paige’s turn as Zola, an appalled observer, that’s the real star-maker here. She’s not only a fantastic dancer (with a background in ballet and as a regular on VH1’s cheerleading drama Hit the Floor) but she’s also a deftly understated comic performer. Her abrupt one-line reactions to the unravelling drama around her are pitched exquisitely but it’s her wordless facial responses that derive so much of the film’s humour. One hopes this launches her into an even higher bracket and with an upcoming role alongside Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it seems like she’s already, deservedly on her way there.

The Twitter-to-screen adaptation of Zola is as scrappy and imperfect as the original story but just as likable. There’s something unusually compelling about what Bravo does with the material that makes up for its missteps. It’s a bumpy ride but definitely one worth taking.

  • Zola is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be confirmed

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Benjamin Lee in Park City

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