By Ashley Teresa
23rd October 2021

On the 27th of October 2015, 19-year-old Detriot waitress and stripper A'Ziah "Zola" Wells King reflected on a weekend road trip "full of suspense" on perhaps the least suitable platform for long-form storytelling - Twitter. Zola's 148-tweet recount had the internet in a chokehold, limited only by a 140-character-per-tweet limit and an inability to thread her tweets together with coherence (two features Twitter has since changed). With plausibility out the window (everyone embellishes on the internet, right?), Zola's almost lyrical storytelling screamed for attention - and, six years later, it has received exactly that in the form of an excellent film that is not without its kinks, but by some miracle still captures the exact craziness of a seemingly impossible-to-adapt source material.

Zola's (Taylour Paige, 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom') nightmare starts when she meets Stefani (Riley Keough, 'The Lodge'), a blonde whirlwind of Juicy Couture and a blaccent that needs to be heard to be believed, during a waitressing shift. The two strike up an instant bond - so much so that Stefani soon invites Zola along for a weekend of dancing in Tampa's hottest strip clubs with Stefani's clingy boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, TV's 'Succession') and shady roommate X (Colman Domingo, 'Candyman') in tow. If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is; their weekend of easy dollar bills tucked neatly into their G-strings soon turns into something much more sinister as X's other money-making plans come to light. Simply put, Zola is in over her head. Or so she tells us.


Boasting incredibly clever visual storytelling - who knew the colour of someone's pee would make for cinematic magic? - bursting with colour, and propelled by Mica Levi's ('Monos') hypnotic score, 'Zola' is like a vodka Red Bull straight to the head. Just as zippy is the film's comedy; a new tweet is denoted by a push notification whistle, similar to the cocking of a gun at the beginning of a new chapter in 2013's 'Spring Breakers'. In losing the written wit of the original thread, editor Joi McMillon ('If Beale Street Could Talk') finds ways to infuse the film with its same screwball energy - emojis are translated to facial expressions, exclamation marks and capital letters find their translation in the score's trap beats and handheld camerawork (a sequence set to Migos' 'Hannah Montana' is one of the film's best), and Zola's reactionary asides are often narrated over super-unflattering freeze frames. Luckily, both sides of the camera bring their A-game, and one of 'Zola's' most entertaining aspects is watching Paige, Keough and Domingo battle for the title of MVP performance. Always the best part of any project she takes on, Keough is clearly set up to be a scene-stealer, but it's Domingo's magnetic, dramatically out-of-sorts performance that really shines. Any moment of enjoyment on Zola's trip is instantly undercut by his looming presence, making sure audiences can never get too comfortable on the wild ride.

The masterstroke of 'Zola' is just how well the film manages to capture not only the lingo of 2015, but how it understands and perfectly conveys how young women engaged with the internet at the time. Six years is essentially a lifetime on the internet; these days, our terminally online state of being means that viral trends and memes often burn out in a matter of hours. Because of this, many films struggle to paint a portrait of our constantly changing relationship with the internet and how we use it, to the point that they are often outdated by the time they are released. Its historical placement right on the cusp of the internet being a way of life means that Zola's story will live on forever; a pioneer in a sea of rambling Twitter thread-rants. The film balances the internet as a place for Zola and Stefani to flex but not to spend every waking hour, a double-edged sword of power and submission, of income and control. The same scope is applied to the way in which sex workers are framed in the film, particularly during a montage of Stefani meeting multiple clients over the course of a single night (look out for a particular appendage-filled sequence that begs to be awkwardly laughed at). The matter-of-fact nature with which the scene scrolls by neither belittles nor endorses Stefani's profession, and while Zola herself is shocked, she never shows hostility, even reminding Stefani that her services are worth "thousands" and giving her marketing model an upgrade.

Which brings into focus the true question of the film: did Zola really not know what would transpire on the trip? Is she really the innocent bystander her recount makes her out to be?

Which brings into focus the true question of the film: did Zola really not know what would transpire on the trip? Is she really the innocent bystander her recount makes her out to be? And if she really was as shocked as she said she was, how is she able to boost Stefani's sex work profile so well that she ends up being a better pimp than X? The film addresses this by briefly giving Stefani the limelight, in a fourth-wall breaking telling of her side of the story - and surprise surprise, she refutes every single one of Zola's claims. The sequence is a sobering reminder to not believe everything you read on the internet, and its place in the film right as things are about to get truly batshit gives the audience pause, but those looking for something to take away from the experience may have been better served if this sequence had been placed at the end of the film, leaving audiences to ponder how much of the truth Zola has actually told in the first place and highlighting that "pics or it didn't happen" mentality the internet holds everyone to.

The film breezes by at a glorious 84 minutes, with as much time to breathe as one would imagine if you were to have Zola sit down and blurt it out to you in person. It also ends just as abruptly as the thread, which may leave audiences wondering what is to be taken away from the experience. Perhaps that's exactly the point. The film's pacing and distinct lack of character growth are reminiscent of spending a couple of hours on the internet, getting lost down a random discussion thread, and moving on with your life. Adding to this the clear omissions and embellishments in Zola's retelling of her story, it's a sensationalised telling of a weekend that begs only for a "damn, that's crazy!" response before you keep scrolling. Zola's thread held intense cultural weight because people were invested as she shared her story in real time; it's all about the reaction of the audience, the instant attention and validation, rather than leaving them with something profound afterwards. It flies directly in the face of every rule we are taught constitutes "good" filmmaking, and it works as a loyal adaptation for exactly that reason.

Whether or not you completely buy into Zola's story, it's impossible not to get drawn into the frenetic and seductive storytelling. It's rare for things on the internet to maintain a long shelf life, but 'Zola' marks an exciting new era of viral storytelling that I'm excited to see evolve.

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