In order to appreciate how Aziah “Zola” King’s hellish trip to Tampa, Florida earned its cinematic dramatization, it helps to understand Twitter circa October 2015, when the Detroit-based exotic dancer first shared her story. Context is key: In its original form, this tale spanned across 148 tweets during a time when the platform didn’t functionally support longform storytelling. With a miniscule 140-character limit and no user-friendly method of grouping related tweets (an increased character allowance and the threading tool were both introduced two years later), attempts to spin a yarn of any length were often reserved for the truly noteworthy moments that justified the labor. That’s how good King’s storytelling was: It got thousands following along before Twitter made that easy, for the writer or the reader.
King’s abundantly chaotic tale captivated the Twittersphere for hours. It was, as she dutifully warned at the top of the thread, “kind of long but full of suspense.” But it also benefited immensely from a unique and spirited perspective. Working within the limits of the platform to recreate her outlandish experience, King set a high bar for a burgeoning movement of long-form social-media storytelling. With Zola, writer-director Janicza Bravo, co-screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris, and a thoroughly committed cast demonstrate a clear respect for King’s voice, which is one reason they come so close to capturing the zeal of the original tweetstorm.
Zola unrolls the thread of its titular protagonist (Taylour Paige) and her ill-fated meeting with a personable fellow dancer (Riley Keough) the film names Stefani. The two have known each for less than a day when Stefani invites Zola on a road trip to Florida for a purportedly lucrative gig dancing at a club—an offer Zola accepts against her better judgment. Along for the ride are Stefani’s dopey boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate,” the deceptively laidback X (Colman Domingo). The trio’s alienating dynamic and a less-than-successful night at the club are the least of Zola’s worries: Before long, she realizes that she’s been manipulated into a seriously dangerous prostitution gambit that will ultimately end in kidnapping and murder.
Before the audience can start judging Zola’s temporary failure of self-preservation, Bravo and Harris effectively illustrate her quick-forming bond with Stefani through fast-paced dialogue and a special emphasis on the ways they connected in such a short period of time. The women find a natural rhythm with each other thanks to their shared, specific experience as young sex workers. Out of all the startling aspects of #TheStory, as it was hashtagged, the most relatable is the allure of potentially finding camaraderie with a fellow outsider.
Of course, as made clear upfront by Zola’s opening tweet—reconfigured in the film as voice-over narration—the two were headed for a falling out. Bravo and Harris center on the cognitive dissonance that led to the quick death of their budding friendship. Clever allusions to how fundamentally different these women are—from an uncomfortably telling scene in a gas station bathroom to how Stefani leans into an affected blaccent while gleefully degrading Black women—hint at a deeper story beneath the surface of the misadventure. Through Zola, we see a glimpse of the perennial conflict between Black women and women like Stefani, who have zero qualms steeping themselves in Black culture for their own benefit without actually respecting the women they attempt to emulate. Though hijinks largely drive King’s story, Bravo doesn’t allow the viewer to lose sight of Stefani’s gift for manipulation and the ways she weaponizes her whiteness to evade accountability.
That said, Zola is first and foremost a zany, catastrophic road-trip dramedy, one that balances the whimsy of social media with the harrowing reality of being trapped in a dangerous situation. Humorously monotone verbalizations of text messages and chirpy notifications pay tribute to the story’s digital origins, while long shots of unremarkable roads speak to a feeling of mounting, endless dread (enhanced by another otherworldly score by Jackie and Under The Skin composer Mica Levi). Bravo, whose previous film was the deadpan comedy Lemon, uses symmetry to express the growing opposition between the women, placing the two side by side for recurring shots of them getting ready for a show or physically dividing them with the wall of a hotel suite when the fast friends are squaring off for the first time.
Bravo has assembled a skilled cast, capable of wringing laughs from even the less obviously comic moments. Paige is a pitch-perfect Zola, equal parts indignant and accustomed to wild behavior. She steals scenes with her deadpan delivery, cementing her keen comedic instincts with note-perfect readings (“They start fucking. It was gross.”). Offering side commentary and blunt observations, she narrates in the style of a friend recounting an anecdote—which, for one night on Twitter, Zola was to a lot of people. Keough also takes the opportunity to flex her comedic muscles, especially during an inspired montage that finds Stefani offering her side of the story. Meanwhile, Braun is well-cast as the doting boyfriend, even if the performance is strongly reminiscent of his work on HBO’s Succession.
Above all, Zola is a treat for fans and followers of the original Twitter thread. At the same time, the film occasionally leans too liberally on the story’s viral popularity, failing to clarify hazier moments for the viewer who may not be familiar with the source material. For instance, there’s the way that Colman, who brings ceaseless energy and charisma to “roommate” (or, more accurately, pimp) X, switches from an American accent to a vaguely African one without warning. While the original thread identifies him as African, the film makes no mention of his origins or even what triggers this sudden verbal slip—it’s just a weird non sequitur. Bravo and Harris also fail to give their movie a substantial conclusion: Whereas the original thread at least offered updates on all the key players, Zola just kind of… ends in non-dramatic fashion, with a final scene that feels at least two scenes premature. Still, the film effectively emphasizes what those who breathlessly followed along on Twitter already know: that a good story can come from anyone or anywhere, whether it’s told shot by shot or 140 characters at a time.