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Movie Review: 'Zola' Adapts A Twitter Thread To Film

Every story and review of Zola seems to understandably lead with the movie’s genesis, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so here I will do the same:

You want to hear a story about how me and this b**** here fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense.

The film from director Janicza Bravo is adapted from a 148-tweet Twitter thread from 2015 by A’Ziah King, known as “Zola,” who at the time was a Hooters waitress and sometimes-stripper in Detroit when she met a woman who invited her to travel to Florida to dance at some clubs, setting off a feverishly dark and impressively nutty series of events. King recounted the experience on Twitter, with a story that captivated much of the website and even won praises from people such as acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Adapting a Twitter thread to film? Why not? A good story is a good story.

It’s best not to get too caught up in the veracity of Zola, both because King has admitted to some embellishment in her original posts, and also because the movie makes some changes even from King’s Twitter thread. The joy, in both cases, lies in the telling of the story, and Bravo has found delightfully inventive ways to express the waking-nightmare feeling of this odyssey, and to show the increasingly blurry lines between online life and the physical world. She shot the movie on 16mm film, which gives it an unusually tactile quality that almost lets us feel and smell the cotton candy scumminess of sweaty Florida strip clubs and broken-down motels. And she uses subtle sound techniques, dialogue tricks, and split screens to represent the intensely online, fractured reality of social media life in ways that are certainly new to me, at least in this context. All of this punctuated by occasional laugh-out-loud moments, including a particularly inspired rendition of a Reddit post.

Anchoring it all are the two leads, Taylour Paige as Zola and a rather horrifying Riley Keough as her tormenter, Stefani. Paige’s wide eyes display Zola’s flabbergasted indignation as what she thought was a simple business trip spirals further and further out of control, and Keough is astonishingly, oppressively chaotic as a character she’s described as a “demon,” and Bravo has called a “white nightmare.” It’s never entirely clear what Stefani has in her head, whether she’s entirely at the whim of her impulses or whether it’s all calculated, or some unholy combination of the two, and by the end, we still don’t know, although we know we’ve been through something.

As for the end, well, Twitter giveth and Twitter also taketh away—what has been so exciting and invigorating about the adaptation of the thread does, indeed, have to end, and it sort of just… does, the way a set of tweets might. It’s been a heck of a ride, but when the sun comes up, and we start to head back home, we might wonder if there’s something more ahead on that highway. It turns out there is, though we don’t see it here, and it’s something that makes for an even more ominous postscript to the entire debacle. But that’s maybe a separate issue from what this movie is tackling, and after all, the enjoyment really lies in the journey.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.