Based on a viral 2015 Twitter thread, “Zola” isn’t the first movie about social media, but it might be the first that truly captures the chaotic frenzy of how social media intersects social justice and entertainment.
Told through the lens of A’Ziah “Zola” King, aka @_zolarmoon, the Detroit waitress who wrote the original 148-tweet thread, the film embraces the contrasting parallels that exist within the characters while also frankly unveiling an alternate America that mainstream society simultaneously praises and shuns.
Zola (Taylour Paige, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) has resigned herself to her life. She waits tables in a restaurant that’s just a tier above fast food and is sleepwalking through life when she meets co-worker Stefani (Riley Keough). The two quickly bond, talking about their shared side-hustle, stripping, and numbers are exchanged. Over the next day, the bond tightens over texts, and Zola soon finds herself agreeing to go on a road trip to Florida with Stefani, Stefani’s roommate X (Colman Domingo), and her boyfriend Derrek (Nick Braun). Zola soon learns the real reason behind Stefani’s invitation and has to get out of danger and away from the intimidating grasp of X.
Director Janizca Bravo (“Lemon”) brings a feverish rawness to this adaptation of King’s story that captures the absorbing nature of the viral thread. Bravo doesn’t shy away from the elements of the tale that are uncomfortable and terrifying; instead, Bravo plays on that unease with bold stylistic choices. From an oddly-placed shot over toilets to a comical montage of penises, her direction is careful, shocking, and blunt. The journey she crafts is built on the intersection of social media and social justice, and the perception of both. It’s a complicated space to place a film; that frenetic energy isn’t for everyone, but it’s the only way that this story could be told authentically.
The script, crafted by Bravo and co-writer Tony award nominee Jeremy O. Harris (Broadway’s “Slave Play”) from King’s tweets and David Kushner’s article, uses modern-day social media jargon that those who live online will claim and acknowledge as their own. It is both a refreshing way of marking the era the film in which takes place and an intelligent exploration of how Black culture gets siphoned by social media, appropriated, and ultimately stolen. The influence of both writers is felt — with Bravo’s understanding of complex women infused within and Harris’ challenging discomfort permeating throughout, it’s a great collaboration of two talented writers with distinct styles.
Each actor in “Zola” is called upon to bring to life very fleshed-out personalities, but ultimately, that’s all they are: personalities. Twitter is deceptive that way; we only know as much as a person’s timeline will allow. What an individual likes or retweets, or whatever threads they write, offer only one dimension of humanity, and each of the actors understands what it is they’re playing. Zola is the only character that is given just a little more depth.
Paige takes those subtle cues and infuses Zola’s feelings into her physicality. In a sense, the entire film balances upon the stillness in her performance. For all of the events that unfold within the plot, her portrayal keeps Zola grounded, confident, and vulnerable, giving a stark contrast to Stefani’s exaggerated, superficial innocence. Where Zola is seen as authentic and complex, Keough’s Stefani is clearly meant to be gaudy and brash. A lesser performer might have made Stefani no more than a caricature, but Keough provides the delicate balance of being both comic relief and the embodiment of cultural appropriation.
There’s a lot of restraint, wisely, in the sound direction as well. With such chaotic imagery and the intense emotions on display, the purposeful lack of sound in some scenes heightens the connection to what’s on screen. Loud phone chirps subtly stand in as the film’s score in crucial moments, acutely reflecting that this is a world built on Twitter.
“Zola” feels utterly contemporary but will no doubt be examined for decades to come, as a marker of both this particularly crazy time in history and of the moment that social media became self-aware. Whip-smart, funny, complicated, and just plain wild, “Zola” is 90 minutes of brilliance.
“Zola” opens in select US theaters June 30.