Film Review: Zola

Real Life to Tweet Storm to Rolling Stone to A24

I’m going to be honest: this “review” will largely be word vomit.  In fact, I can hardly even call it a review as it’s more of a conversation.  I have an almost half-baked thesis on what I thought about Zola, the 2021 film directed by Janicza Bravo, based on the viral tweet storm from 2015.  There won’t be major spoilers, especially if you have read said Twitter thread, but if you haven’t consumed the tweets and want to go into the film completely blind, maybe don’t keep reading. 

(Selfish amendment: watch the film and then come back and read this.

First of all, for all intents and purposes, Zola is a two hander of a film brilliantly led by Taylour Paige (portraying the titular character) and Riley Keough (the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, portraying the chaotic Stephanie).  Though these two women have quite a few credits under their collective belts, this film firmly marks their arrival into the cultural conversation.  They are spectacular in it and indelibly help us understand who the real women they’re playing are right from the first words they utter.

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Second of all, you need to remember the name Janicza Bravo as I do feel like she’s about to pop off.  Her visual style is, as the kids would say, chef’s kiss.  The movie is dripping with neon and crystals and all of the things that make a good Instagram story.  It’s primary setting— Tampa— makes you feel both gross and engrossed from the second they make it to Florida and it’s larger than life characters never leave you feeling bored, that’s for sure.  Bravo is clearly a talented director with a clear visual style and I’m more than willing to support her future outings.  Oh and also learn the name of the co-writer, Jeremy O. Harris, if you don’t know it already.  He’s about to be the new queer, Black superhero of dramatic writing and you should get in on the ground floor.

Now, here’s my hangup.  I’m not sure the film is quite sure what it wants to be or how much fun it wants us to have.  The tonal shifts and the wild zigzagging from celebration to irony to darkness back to celebration (etc etc etc) are fun until we verge into the sex trafficking world. When there is mention of “you’ve done this to others” in Stefani’s direction, implying that Zola isn’t the first person she’s pulled into her scheme, that’s when the film sort of lost me.  In that moment, I definitely started to reckon with, “wait, should I be having fun with this?!”  All I could think about from that point forward was, “well what about these others?  What happened to the ones that didn’t get a raucous viral tweet storm turned into an A24 movie and just got this violent pimp and manipulative white girl?”  I just couldn’t keep having even any fun watching anymore.

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And this is where the strange collision of flouncy social media critique collides with the very real world situations it sought to examine.  It was sort of like watching a movie that was whispering to us “haha, isn’t this fun and crazy?!” while not realizing just how dark the situation was.  The way Zola popped off on Twitter is hysterical, the story so outlandish you can’t help but laugh.  But again, what about those other girls pulled into Stephanie’s orbit?  Sex trafficking is a very real, very scary thing and for the central conflict of a movie based on a Twitter rant to become that just doesn’t feel right.  And there is really no one to point any fingers at either.  It’s just the inherent nature of adapting a Twitter thread into a feature film.  There is an implicit, built in feeling that it should all be only taken half-seriously, I mean it is Twitter after all.  So for it to turn so dark so quickly was really unsettling as it didn’t really process that darkness at all.

Now, again, don’t get me wrong, the real life narrative/story that Zola present is INSANE.  It is absolutely a movie begging to happen (which is why a bidding war began the second it became the subject of a Rolling Stone article, titled Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted by David Kushner), I’m just not quite sure what movie it should be…

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I’m not really adding anything to conversation here because I’m not offering a solution on what to fix or how I would’ve done it myself.  But just as messy as the world is that Zola inhabits, I wanted to offer my messy thoughts.  Maybe one day I’ll follow up on this with more clarity.  Or maybe not.  Who knows.  For now, this feels like enough.

Film Review: Zola