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If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, you know the social media site doesn’t lend itself to good storytelling. Yelling into the void, yes. Finely-crafted narratives, rarely. We got both in 2015, when A’Ziah “Zola” King wrote a 148-tweet thread detailing her recent adventure in Miami that included a burgeoning friendship between two strippers, a harrowing escape from sex trafficking, and a bloody shootout. In Zola, director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) attempts to translate both the truth and the spirit of King’s thread to film. Given the way that Hollywood typically whitewashes the realities of women, people of color, and sex workers, it’s a noble task, and even when the film falters—as it often does—the earnestness of the attempt shines through.
“You want to hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out?” That was the opening tweet of King’s thread, and it’s the one that opens the film. Zola (Taylour Paige) is waiting tables when she is befriended by Stefani (Riley Keough), a fellow dancer who coaxes Zola into taking a trip to Miami for the weekend, where she promises they can dance for high rollers. Along for the ride are Derreck (Nicholas Braun), Stefani’s weak-willed boyfriend, and X (Colman Domingo), an abusive, paranoid monster whose purpose on the trip isn’t clear until he surreptitiously sets up a Backpage ad for the two women to perform sex work after their night at the club is over.
Zola is a heavy trip through the seedy back alleys and cheap motels of Miami, with brisk editing and boisterous humor that ensures we don’t dwell too much on the accelerating awfulness. The stakes of her captivity unfold on Zola like a bad dream, but even when X grabs her by the throat and threatens her life, she seems to take it in stride. Zola keeps her wits about her and never breaks, perhaps hinting at a life that has prepared her for this moment. It’s a choice that resonates. Other films would see Zola only as a victim, but this one gives her agency, underlining her strength while still probing it for meaning.
All of the film’s successes are borne from Bravo’s commitment to telling this story authentically. After taking over the project from James Franco, who originally optioned the Twitter thread and planned to direct the adaptation himself, Bravo tapped Zola herself to produce and be heavily involved in the film’s creation. At times, Bravo takes the film’s fealty to the thread too far. She adds a distracting “tweet” sound to signify when a plot point is taken directly from the thread, which also identifies, by its absence, those elements of the film that were created by dramatic license. Bravo’s dedication to uplifting Zola as the author of her own story is admirable, but these little touches mostly just interrupt the flow. So does the film’s abrupt ending, which concludes the plot but leaves the viewer expecting a thematic denouement. The fact that there isn’t one makes you wonder if Zola was about anything in the first place.
Perhaps most frustrating, however, is the hole at the film’s center. The draw of the original thread was Zola’s voice: funny, real, and always in control of the narrative, but here Paige’s understated performance sometimes tips over into absenteeism. The surrounding cast is on fire: Domingo plays X as a cold-blooded killer, with no cracks of vulnerability in his hard shell, while Keough continues her run of scene-stealing supporting performances in films like Logan Lucky and Under the Silver Lake. Stefani remains an ambiguous character throughout—we’re never quite sure if her sex work is entirely voluntary or not—but Keough is so watchable that the mysteries aren’t a problem. Paige’s performance, and indeed, the film itself, is nearly engulfed by her glittering charisma.
That’s the whole issue with Zola, which is less a compelling narrative than an exercise in distraction. Bravo’s talent as an image-maker is undeniable. There’s hardly a frame in the film that doesn’t bear her creative stamp, and even a simple two-shot of characters talking feels blazingly alive in her hands. But she’s unable to have—or uninterested in having—such a firm hand with Zola’s themes. It’s never quite clear what Zola is about, even as the highs and lows keep you invested in an outcome that never arrives. It’s the first film to capture the elusive buzz of being extremely online. Even with the best intentions, it probably should have stayed there.
Zola was released in theaters on Wednesday.