Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Ari'el Stachel, Colman Domingo, Jason Mitchell, Ts Madison, Nelcie Souffrant, Nasir Rahim, Jarquale Stewart
Written by: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, based on an article by David Kushner, and on a story by Aziah Wells King
Directed by: Janicza Bravo
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault
Running Time: 90
Date: 06/30/2021

Zola (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Trick or Tweet

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If nothing else, this is the first time in history a movie can be described as being based not on a novel, video game, or comic book, but on a 148-Tweet Twitter thread.

Telling the story of two strippers who take a topsy-turvy road trip to Florida, Zola, which opens Wednesday, June 30, feels like an ultra-modern telling of an old pulp tale.

In 2015, Aziah Zola, Wells King began her saga with the words "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this b---h here fell out???????? It's kind of long but full of suspense," punctuated with both laughing and crying emojis, and including photos of herself and the b---h in question, Jessica.

The original tweets appear to have been deleted from her Twitter account, but the entire thread is linked in a Rolling Stone article, which told the story behind the story, and became part of the basis for the movie.

Reading the thread, which is conversational, funny, bold, and full of foul language, typos, and grammar and punctuation issues, the story amazingly springs to life, and at the end of it, a reasonable response is certainly: "this sounds like a movie."

Zola the movie actually tones down a few things from the story, but these choices seem to have been made to empower its women characters, rather than allowing them to simply be victims of circumstance.

Taylour Paige (White Boy Rick, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) plays Zola as pretty and quiet, but savvy and streetwise. Riley Keough (American Honey, Logan Lucky) is "Stefani" (changed from Jessica), the unpredictable, manipulative wild child.

Director and co-writer Janicza Bravo (who also made the weird, dark comedy Lemon) creates lux, dreamy spaces for the characters to unfold their story. Clubs and hotel rooms somehow feel both realistically seedy and optimistically glitzy.

Also along on the road trip are Stefani's boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) — changed from "Jarrett" in the story — and "X" (Colman Domingo) — changed from "Z" in the story — who, it turns out, is Stefani's pimp, slipping into some kind of Caribbean accent when enraged.

Derrek is dropped off at a low-rent, seedy hotel with the group's bags, and the other three head to a nicer hotel to get dressed for the night. After some uneventful dancing, Stefani announces that she is going to switch jobs, from stripper to prostitute.

Zola doesn't do that, so she acts as an unofficial "greeter," eventually becoming fed up and helping Stefani raise her prices.

Meanwhile, the tall, gawky doofus Derrek manages to get the entire crew in trouble by talking to the wrong guy; this leads to, among other things, Stefani being kidnapped.

Appropriately, Bravo adds Zola's narration into the story, with enticing details about how long before she hears one person speak for the first time, and noting the exact points in which the story takes another weird turn. Each little "chapter" is accompanied by the familiar bird-like "tweet" sound.

At one point, the movie also provides Stefani/Jessica's alternate version of events, which are treated as comical exaggerations.

But Bravo also adds other strange touches, including the sounds of two boys rhythmically dribbling a basketball as the travelers arrive at their hotel. The boys are on a walkway above, and it appears as if their actions have been looped, like a repeating GIF, the bouncing noise becoming more and more unsettling.

Her unexpected camera placement and odd editing choices, with cuts that seem to come just before or after a natural beat, also make things feel off-kilter.

It's Paige's performance as Zola that keeps things grounded. Her absolute conviction in the story as gospel truth, and her own incredulous reactions to the crazier parts, make her believable.

So what is Zola about, then? It might be about the empowering of its women characters, but its real subject is storytelling. Indeed, it's about both; it's about how characters retain their power by controlling their own story.

Yet, by passing Zola's story on to Bravo's movie, it has changed again. It's now Bravo's story, and as respectful as she tries to be, that fact can never change.

Despite its levels of Tarantino-style meta-ness, Zola still has a once-removed feel from the original tweets, and it's certainly less crazy than the story.

On the other hand, no adaptation can fairly compare to its source material, and maybe Zola can be viewed as an extension of the lore of the tweets, rather than something separate. In other words, the story may tumble from variation to variation, but it goes on and on.

A24 & Lionsgate's Blu-ray release offers a bold digital transfer that capture's the film's unique look and sound. Director Bravo and editor Joi McMillon provide a commentary track, and we get a 12-minute featurette (with footage of the real Zola), five minutes of deleted scenes, and trailers for other A24 releases (The Green Knight and Minari).

Movies Unlimtied