The term “adapted screenplay” brings to mind films based on novels, stage plays or musicals. “Zola” is a glittering step in the evolution of the adapted screenplay: It’s a film adapted from tweets.
In 2015, Detroit waitress A’ziah “Zola” King took to Twitter to narrate the true story of a weekend trip to Florida gone awry in the simplest words possible and 148 tweets. King had joined a trio of strangers — exotic dancer Jessica, Jessica’s boyfriend Jarrett and her mysterious “roommate” named Z — with the intention of heading to Tampa for a few days to dance at strip clubs, where they would make more money than they could in Detroit. From there the story spirals into prostitution, murder and a poolside suicide attempt, the wild 140-character entries all punctuated by King’s blunt, lively voice and the occasional emoji.
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????” reads her first tweet, referring to herself and Jessica, who is renamed Stefani in the movie adaptation. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Her thread went viral, garnering the attention of Missy Elliot, Rolling Stone and millions of social media users, so much so that director and screenwriter Janicza Bravo saw potential in that buzzing corner of the Internet for the summer must-watch that “Zola” has turned into. Thus, “Zola” was born, beginning production in 2018 and hitting theaters June 30 after a pandemic-induced delay.
The appeal of the original Twitter thread rested in its quality of complete surrealism — every entry King added made the raunchy Floridian odyssey of sorts all the more intriguing. If a friend walked up to you and recounted Zola’s story, you’d probably dismiss it as fiction because there’s just no way all of it could be true. Yet Zola’s story is every bit as real as it is absurd and preposterous to the average Twitter scroller.
Bravo’s herculean task was to maintain the feverish allure of the source material while translating it visually and tonally to the silver screen, without crossing the line to implausibility. It’s a fine line to walk, but “Zola” does it well. It’s one of few films to capture the online experience aesthetically but accurately.
For example, to mimic the voice in your head that reads your texts, Zola and Stefani read texts aloud in monotone voices while the camera frames them peering at their phones. To nod at the ever-curated and performed narratives we project on social media, the film takes a short break from Zola’s perspective, and instead Stefani tells her side of the story, painting the same events in a very different light.
Notification bells cut off dialogue, and ‘like’ hearts pop up in the center of the screen now and then. A hilarious standout scene shows Zola zoning out — while Stefani lies unconscious and surrounded by armed men — as the all-too-familiar macOS screensaver fills the screen for one, two, three beats. Zola returns to her reality as we return to the film, again smartly inserting the viewer into Zola’s individual narrative and reiterating the digitalness of it all.
On a more harrowing note, “Zola” underscores the dangers of social media and the frightening omnipresence of sex trafficking. The film’s final act, which is about 15 minutes too short to provide the audience a sense of completeness, is tense and unnerving as Zola tries to extricate herself from the sticky situation Stefani had landed her in.
Still, there’s something soberly refreshing about centering a Black female stripper’s story without condemning her, having her be saved or sentencing her character to some moral awakening. She’s allowed to exist in the story as she is, rather than as an aspirational model of perfect morality. Characters like Zola are far too rarely treated as figures worth the audience’s empathy and support.
Each of the movie’s four leads dazzles: Zola herself is played by Taylour Paige, who bears a striking resemblance to the real-life Zola; Nicholas Braun of “Succession” does his best Pete Davidson impression as dim-witted boyfriend Derrek; Colman Domingo puts on a performance equal parts impressive and terrifying as Stefani’s pimp named X and Riley Keough stars as the notorious Stefani herself, boisterous and vulgar and sporting the world’s most painfully intentional blaccent. Beyond being a comedy of errors, “Zola” is a viciously sharp example of how white people co-opt Blackness for their own benefit, and Stefani sits right at the center.
The film exists in a space between neon glitter, bubblegum and sex jokes and the very real and distressing constant threats upon the characters’ lives. Danger could be coming after any scene transition, and that juxtaposition of horror and hilarity is everything to “Zola” — that’s how they keep their audience invested. The raunchy girls’ trip to Florida has been done and done again (including A24’s own “Spring Breakers”), as has the true crime documentary. “Zola” positions itself at the corner of the two, beckoning to fans of both tropes and capitalizing on the appeal of this intersection.
“Zola” is a doomscroll in movie form — you can’t bring yourself to look away from it as it spirals into absurdity, but at the same time, you know you want to keep watching.