To prepare for watching Zola, I did something I’ve never done before: I read an entire Twitter thread. Was it ever worth it. In 2015, Detroit stripper and Hooters waitress A’Ziah “Zola” King posted 148 tweets detailing a trip she took to Florida with a customer who was also a stripper. Zola did it to make money and indeed turned a considerable profit, but went through hell as she witnessed an attempted murder, an attempted suicide, a car theft, and her new friend having sex with some 20 guys. This week, the film Zola depicts that weekend that was way wilder than she wanted it to be. Funny, but I wanted the movie to be wilder.
Taylour Paige portrays Zola, though the name of every other character in the story has been changed. She’s waiting tables at the breastaurant when a white customer named Stefani (Riley Keough) chats her up. The day after they meet, Stefani invites her to Tampa to make some extra cash as a nude dancer. She shows up to the road trip with two men, a clingy white dude named Derek (Nicholas Braun) whom she introduces as her roommate but is clearly her boyfriend, and a Black guy called X (Colman Domingo) whom she introduces as her boyfriend but is actually her pimp. Neither Zola nor Derek are aware that the other two are running a sidelight in prostitution, and Stefani advertises Zola’s services as a hooker online without telling Zola, which is the first of many not-cool things that the people around Zola do.
Perhaps there’s not much a director needs to do with material like this, but first-time feature filmmaker Janicza Bravo (who has directed episodes of Atlanta and Dear White People) injects herself into the proceedings anyway, flooding the screen with heart emojis when Zola and Stefani first meet and punctuating the action with the text message pings and Twitter sound effects on the ladies’ phones. It’s cute that the men here are seen in full-frontal nudity while our actresses are shown in every state of undress except the naughty bits. The rough-and-tumble look of this is similar to Sean Baker’s films like Tangerine and The Florida Project, and it fits this story.
What’s missing is a sense of momentum. In the Twitter thread, Zola describes herself narrowly escaping assault or death on a number of occasions, and we never sense that these ladies are in real danger. The comedy goes missing, too, when Zola becomes so impatient with X’s way of doing business that she creates a Backpage ad for Stefani that quadruples her rate and rakes in the cash. Even the climactic set piece where Stefani is abducted by some clients and X goes in with guns drawn to retrieve her is lacking that electricity. The movie clocks in at a scant 85 minutes, and too much of it is simply inert. Some of this is down to Paige’s performance, as she never looks overly bothered by the proceedings, but the filmmaking bears some blame as well. The detour with Stefani giving her version of events is a mistake, too. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, as problematic as it is, gives a better sense of events spiraling out of control. Bravo has undeniable talent behind the camera, but her first effort can’t live up to its source. Call me old-fashioned, but a movie should be more exciting than reading a bunch of tweets.
Starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. Directed by Janicza Bravo. Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, based on A’Ziah “Zola” King’s tweets. Rated R.