In 2015, a part-time dancer from Detroit called Aziah “Zola” Wells went viral with a cheeky Twitter thread purporting to tell the pulp-factual tale of her recent, crazily dangerous road trip to Florida with someone called Jessica, whom she’d only just met. This woman had persuaded Zola there was big money in pole-dancing for rich clients in Tampa, but Zola had to share the car with Jessica’s creepy boyfriend and even creepier pimp, and soon it was clear that Zola was going to have to do much more than dance. She was in way over her head.
Or was she? Followers of Zola’s posts loved them at least partly for how outrageously unreliable they were: Zola was clearly embellishing, or pre-emptively giving her side of the story before Jessica did the same. Now this has been turned into a very entertaining lowlife crime comedy from director and co-writer Janicza Bravo, a film that preserves the fishy flavour of the online original – if perhaps only semi-intentionally – and has interesting things to say about the exhaustingly performative and self-promotional world of social media.
Newcomer Taylour Paige plays the worldly and imperturbable Zola; she is working her other job in a diner when she serves a hyperactive and loquacious customer (renamed) Stefani, played with blitzingly fierce energy by Riley Keough. Stefani is a “blaccented” charmer and fast talker who persuades Zola to join her on a weekend of easy money in the sex-work-adjacent world of stripping, fanatically flattering and seducing her with endless social media posts and selfies. But then Zola is disconcerted by the two guys who are apparently coming with them in the car: Stefani’s whiny beta-male boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, the callow minor cousin from TV’s Succession) and a ferociously sinister guy without a name, who is to negotiate the women’s fee for providing extra services, played by Colman Domingo. Like Stefani, he appears to have a learned accent, as he will later frighteningly reveal.
The key question is how innocent Zola is. Did she really not know what she was expected to do? Did she really not join in with what Stefani was doing with guys in the hotel room? (The film serves up a gruesome penis montage.) And if she was so detached from all this, then how come she knew how to boost Stefani’s sex-work income? The film briefly flirts with a Rashomon-type sequence, disrespecting Zola from Stefani’s point of view, but stopping very much short of giving Stefani equal time. This is Zola’s story and the seductive comedy resides in the film inviting us to take her side, while seeing how she is withholding.
In some ways, this feels like a movie from the pre-social media 90s, introducing characters in freezeframe-voiceover; Bravo even gives us Keough caught unflatteringly in mid-blink, a visual gag pinched from Alexander Payne’s Election from 1999. But the sheer crazy energy of the movie is very addictive, particularly in the first stage of the pair’s road trip, overexcited and endlessly videoing each other to Migos’s Hannah Montana on the sound system – until Zola finds the whole thing very wearing and headache-inducing.
And the film is weirdly open-ended and unfinished in the way of real life, which is partly a function of the boasting, the unhumblebragging, the pictures-or-it-didn’t-happen social media neurosis. But Zola also manages to be an icily slick and funny Florida urban thriller in the style of Carl Hiaasen, carried with great deadpan style by Paige.
• Zola is in cinemas from 6 August.