In what’s likely its most surprising scene, in Zola, Janicza Bravo’s joyfully amoral firecracker of a movie, we see two young strippers conspire to make $8,000 over a single night in a Florida hotel suite. Zola (Taylour Paige), the brains of the operation, urges Stefani (Riley Keough), a prostitute, to up her rates to $500 a pop. The trick-turning montage is a jam-packed one, not only for the many shapes and sizes of genitalia on display, but also for the range and variety of Bravo’s visual tricks, some of which mimic the interface of Instagram. With its mix of nonchalant form and outrageous material, Zola is a film whose style feels vividly of a piece with its story’s unconventional origins.
It’s likely the first movie to be inspired not by a novel, a short story or a play, but a Twitter thread — a highly addictive narrative composed in 148 tweets by a Detroit-based Hooters waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King. Her wild and crazy yarn, about the forty-eight hours she spent on the road with a new friend named Jessica (in real-life named Stefani), became a 2015 viral sensation — an eminently retweetable tour de force of humor, suspense and hair-raising violence. It was also a canny demonstration of the pleasures of an unreliable narrator. While King later admitted to having embellished details for dramatic effect — for the larger, more true picture David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article has it covered — the movie that Bravo has made of her adventure is largely faithful to that initial tweetstorm, for better and for worse. “You wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?” Zola asks at the beginning of this journey, before plunging us into a whirlwind of incident, starting with the moment she befriends Stefani in a booth at Hooters and then jumps into an SUV with her and two other companions, presumably to make money from a stripping gig down in Tampa. But a more sinister game is afoot: The man in the driver’s seat (a scene-stealing Colman Domingo) turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, while her clueless, cuckolded boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) rides in the backseat.
Because going on a road trip, like pole dancing, is an inherently cinematic activity, the visual experience of Zola can occasionally enlarge King’s twisty narrative in some obvious ways. The Florida sunshine casts its own woozy spell in Ari Wegner’s 16mm images, as does Mica Levi’s almost fairy tale-like score, punctuated every so often by Twitter-notification sound effects. Certainly you couldn’t ask for better actors to play the four principals, who all shine in their respective roles, such as Paige, who needs little more than an exquisite side-eye to turn Zola into a winningly smart protagonist.
Following up her Adult Swim-esque debut feature Lemon, Bravo has teamed with playwright Jeremy O. Harris for the script duties of Zola, which rather quickly began to be mentioned in the same breath of films like Hustlers and Spring Breakers. But the arch vibe is actually much closer to a funky-discursive post-Tarantino joint, just much more soaked in the social media age and general debauchery that’s presented both salaciously and with a certain detached unease. Yet as funny and ferocious as much of Zola is, it’s let down by an increasingly haphazard script that doesn’t know how to either sustain its humor or negotiate its turn into dark territory.
But, as said before, the performances remain to be a blast, with Keough showing off her daft enthusiasm, while Domingo boosts a live-wire menace playing a character whose gregarious chill eventually reveals itself to be a front. But the film has trouble finding a perspective within its quadrant of characters. For all that Bravo leans on Paige’s deadpan reaction shots and sporadic zinger interjections, the real Zola’s voice, so crucial to the original tweeting spry, goes a bit missing — the film doesn’t lock us into either her stunned disbelief or the growing terror of her ordeal. It’s a chronicle of an unbelievable experience that never conveys the experience part, instead gawking at every twist and turn from a slightly amused remove. It begs to question if maybe Twitter was really the ideal platform for this anecdote. Zola is a raucous hoot of comic absurdities in the internet age, even as its let down by its increasingly slapdash screenplay.
Zola is available in Theaters Nationwide, as of June 30th