Zola: SFF Review

Zola: SFF Review

I don’t remember when I found out; I only remember the confusion. A24 announced they were making a movie based on a Twitter thread. Baffling. So, I sought it out and read it from start to finish, and my word was it a trip. Aziah “Zola” Wells, the woman who wrote the thread, wrote with such character that everything became remarkably evocative and gripping. Now 2021 brings us the promised film under the helmsmanship of Janicza Bravo. They simply called it Zola.

If you’re unfamiliar with the viral thread, I’ll offer some details of the wild story. Zola (Taylour Paige) works day to day as a waitress, but she’s a stripper of a night. Those two worlds colliding become the genesis for the road trip from hell. During one seemingly ordinary shift, Stefani (Riley Keough) walks through the door and asks Zola if she dances, and that’s all it took; they became instant friends. It was only the next day that Stefani made the offer of easy money dancing in Florida, so off they went. There are only two more important characters, Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate”, only credited as X (Coleman Domingo). 

From the offset, Bravo presents her film as stylishly as possible. Parts of the twitter overlay pop up on the screen, and everything feels dreamlike and fast. Eventually, it becomes slightly oversaturated, but there is no denying it’s the perfect way to capture the nature of the tale. Zola is not a typical slow burn A24 feature in this sense. It has no desire to waste time and only aims to get across how crazy this story is as fast as possible. In a flash, they are dancing in Florida, but not before we meet the hilarious Derrek who insists he’ll make Jackass style comedy videos online one day. I’ll say now that Nicholas Braun often steals the show as the awkward and sometimes endearing Derrek; he’s one of Zola’s greatest assets.

However, he ends up stuck in a motel room while the girls and X head out to the club. Here’s where things start to get crazy. When they’re done, it’s revealed X is Stefani’s pimp, and she’s stuck working for him because he threatens the life of her young daughter. This revelation is severe and would take most scripts away from reckless abandon comedy and into the realm of heartbreaking drama. But not Zola, that’s not how she wrote it, and that’s not how the script presents it. Instead, everything remains snappy and borne thoroughly from the narrative voice heard in the tweets (some of which echo verbatim) and in this sense, the original text was well treated. 

But I found it particularly interesting that not all the aspects of the tweets make it to the screen. Most of the content is there, and Bravo presents it to maximum hilarity, but not all of it. Most notably missing is the ending, or more aptly the epilogue, involving the arrest of X. This absence suggested something quite striking to me. One would assume a Twitter thread story would lack the depth to form a good film, but instead, the film lacks the depth to capture the story wholly. Reading it back, you can find moments where Wells was open enough to add a deeper backdrop to the calamity, and Bravo shows no interest in that. Moments like the conversation between Zola and Derrick, a moment in the thread that offers him some redemption. The style wouldn’t need to suffer for these moments either; only realism suffers for their loss. The ultimate result is something entertaining regardless, but it ends with the lingering question: this wasn’t a dream, so why does the film keep playing like it was?

Zola doesn’t always make the most of the original text, but it’s irresistibly hilarious and packed with committed and entertaining performances. 

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Mark is an Australian who likes movies, a lot. Now he studies and writes about them. Will watch anything Scorsese has ever touched.