Director: Janicza Bravo Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo, Jason Mitchell Running Time: 90 minutes
“Every day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is never to be it.” So goes an established adage among Very Online Twitter users (synonym for the depressed), and one worth questioning, isn’t it? From rise and fall celebrity stories, to social media ritual sacrifice, to stories we big up to our mates of some mad one on a mad one, there is an accepted understanding, there is a threshold past which you become a ‘character’, and once that happens, are you still a person? Does everything that happens to you then become on-brand for people’s expectations, do people still see you as a person in the same way? Twitter by its nature imposes limits on character. One leading lady of online who proved an exception to the rule is Aziah “Zola” King, whose long thread about the wild story of how her and “this bitch” fell out captivated readers all the way to the end of a thread, a Rolling Stone article and now, an A24 movie. Suitably shallow as befitting its source material, Zola still uncovers plenty of interesting ideas about power, presentation and identity.
A waitress and occasional dancer, Zola is a down for whatever type, drawn under the spell of new bestie Stefani after a night stripping together provides new levels of friendship, camaraderie, and money moves. Stefani invites Zola on a roadtrip to Florida to make big money, but all is not as it seems, especially with Stefani’s dipshit boyfriend tagging along and Stefani’s “roommate” looming large. A descent into hell and headwreckery ensues, as the gap between the image everyone wants to project and the scary, sad, stupid truth grows wider and clearer.
Director Janicza Bravo keeps the artificial nature of the story present, with an in your face presentation. Times and dates are shown in the centre of the screen like an iPhone screen and every time a line comes verbatim from the Twitter thread we get a bird whistle notification. Characters affect accents that don’t belong to them and never go too long without taking another selfie or front facing video. Paired with the modern stylings is a lens aping 70s cinema, shot to look like filmstock, with soft focus, glitzy montages and title cards in the style of one of our sleazier decades.
It can feel exploitative, Riley Keough’s blaccented sex worker leered and laughed at, bold and confident Zola pushed into shitty situations in telling how her story spiralled out of control. And it peters out a bit, perhaps a natural consequence coming from the source material. The effect won’t be for everybody, but the lack of substance is a very deliberate styling. When Zola looks at herself in the mirror, asking herself “who you gonna be tonight?”, she’s feeling herself but it’s also not necessarily a question she has the answer to. Taylour Paige’s performance shows the uncertainty under the brashness, both are real but the latter has to keep the former at bay. Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O.Harris hint and prick and prod at the subconscious sadness of characters like Stefani, whose life is essentially a City High song, or her boyfriend Derreck, played with near Coen-corn-ponery by Succession‘s Nicholas Braun. Sweet, useless Derreck dreams of becoming a Vine star. His doomed aspirations for an app not long for this world are as tragic as it gets through this particular presentation.
The more artificial we make our stories, the more in control we can feel, a point Zola drives home at a key moment with a counterpoint interjection from Reddit. A movie based on a Twitter thread seems like a hollow exercise, but the funny, horrifying, insightfully awful Zola reveals a lot that beats at the heart of that app’s Parasocial Paradise Lost.
(4 / 5)