a movie inspired by a viral tweet thread could have gone many ways; in fact, the thread in question, from which janicza bravo zola‘s new feature was born, goes everywhere. a stripper misadventure, a back cover okey-doke, a chance encounter in hell, gun violence, a cuckolded toy boy, a suicide attempt, an awkward career shit, an extra helping of terrifying unpredictability and a sharp sense of humor that narrates everything. when aziah “zola” wells took to twitter in 2015 to tell the “why me and this bitch” story — (below: photos of zola and a woman the world would know as jessica) — “we had a fight, her screed of 148 tweets hit the viral big leagues before Zola finished telling her story. zola was caught up in the fierce excitement of going viral midway through the story, goaded on by the thousands who watched it unfold in real-time retrospective.
Hollywood noticed, obviously. Ava Duvernay tweeted it pretty succinctly: “drama, humor, action, suspense, character development” – the story had it all. (the director didn’t point out that these were all qualities that hollywood movies of the day could use more of, but did she really have to?) however: present this story as a movie, without the prior notoriety of the thread, just, the story itself, pretending to be a movie, and you would laugh across the room. which somehow makes it even more revealing.
Improbability is a key to why zola is such a disconcerting, curious, abrasive, intelligent, surprising and probably polarizing joy. but the clever, hyper-elegant, coded, colorful direction of Janicza Bravo, who wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. harris, is what really makes the whole thing arrogant and singed. he very well he could have told the story directly; the material is so overwhelming, so ridiculous, that it’s easy to imagine a writer-director pair relaxing and letting the story do the work, despite being so atypical as a story, violating so many of the norms of “good storytelling.” as it does. the characters don’t grow, the story doesn’t develop, the settings oscillate between being uncomfortably problematic and exciting. zola dives, swerves, swings, and spins with a punishing force akin to a vomit kite, with zola dead center.
and that part, zola in the center, is also key. this is a film that is concerned with exploiting, not the narrator herself, but the cacophony of ideas at play in her testimony. ideas about sex work, and crazy white girls, and pimps and cucks and men with guns, and most of all, the viral narrative itself, are what emerge, not just from the plot, but from the tone: the alienation one feels , both from the film itself and in Zola’s name as she finds herself swept, River Styx-style, into unknown hells. zola makes you feel the itchy, uncomfortable gap between a tweet thread and life as zola lives it during the course of this story. it enhances the banal in the way our digital selves (playable, retweetable, doomscroll-ready, flexible in the way that all fiction is flexible) heightens the banality. on the surface, it’s a movie about a road trip from hell. but what happens is almost less important than how zola tells us it happens. the narration is not only in the voiceover, taken from the tweets. it’s in the way bravo transforms and manifests it all on screen.
Zola is played in the film by taylour paige, who achieves the dynamic the film is going for: as good at appearing unflappable on the outside as, on the inside, you know she’s losing her mind, in so many ways. She’s working as a waitress when she has the unfortunate luck of catching the eye of “this bitch right here,” aka Stefani (a titanically trashy Riley Keogh), and is drawn into a semi-friendship, then a road trip, then… stefani is a sex worker; The man she is with, X, (Colman Domingo), works as her pimp. But they sell Zola on this trip by skipping the part about sex: they make you think they’re just heading to Florida for a quick stripper hustle. zola is not above that; she has done that. so she accompanies him. like stefani’s boyfriend? — Derrek (Nicholas Braun), a cloying boyfriend who enjoys the worst Vine videos, who is too insecure in his attachment to date a sex worker, and who, unfortunately for him, is also in love.
and they are off. watching zola is like being stuck in there with the titular heroine as she relives history, meaning we’re reliving her alongside her and also, as a constant stream of twitter jingles and digital trinkets reminds us on the soundtrack. — view it at the time of its online storytelling. it’s like seeing two stories of history at the same time, at the same moment: things as they happened versus things as zola says they happened. Paige gives us the voiceover which, drawn from the tweets, makes it seem like it’s being told in flashback. and part of the power of that is in its own sly hesitation between a matter-of-fact elision of detail (“so we vibe for our hoeism or whatever”), versus its clever attention-grabbing embellishments, versus the all-caps “bitch.” you’ve got me screwed” outrage that is not only retrospective: it is a living feeling, in the present tense, not a mere memory. that’s what zola thinks, without always being able to express it, she doesn’t know these people; there is a gun in the middle of it; who is x anyway, and what about the multiple accents? — And it’s also what Zola will tell us, later, that she was thinking.
it’s kind of weird to see so many modes playing at once; even stranger to feel that those modes are animated and alive, aware of each other. but the film’s present tense is also rich in its own right. it’s a stack of startling dilemmas, zola’s reactions to those dilemmas, and all the insights he inundates with them. we may have gotten to zola’s story via a twitter rule, but bravo’s movie is about finding the right brightness, the right visuals, the nuances in the margins of zola’s tale, all of which add up in a feeling of extreme uncertainty. bravo leans into the sense of fantasy that online life and sex work can afford: drippy, harp-laden little interludes of zola and stefani getting ready and reminding us of the gap between what unites them in their heads versus the reality of what what is happening. on the floor. much like what the film explores about sex work itself.
there’s a funny sequence, maybe that’s not the word, where stefani posts a back cover ad for clients and zola, who gets the fantasy, gets the reality isn’t the point, gives it a change of heart image to ad, plays with men’s lowest desires and taboo. Bravo’s cinema makes it comical when the men show up: a parade of interchangeable bodies and cocks, the unnervingly similar men’s beating game (or lack thereof). it’s pointed, and the point is unmissable: the film is tearing these men apart into the kind of transactional anonymity we usually impose on sex workers, not their clients. but it also enhances exactly that sense of transaction itself. Money, money, money: Stefani, in her jailbait outfit, is doing it, and she’s doing it fast. (zola’s first intervention: raise your prices).
but she’s not doing it by herself. she, unlike zola, is accountable to x. the commercial angle of it all, the unfairness of it, is a political point in a movie that, on the surface, doesn’t advertise itself as political. Bravo, the film’s director, had a lot of work ahead of her, as did her co-writer Harris. these are two artists whose work — bravo, in her debut film lemon; harris, in his much-debated plays a slave play and daddy, makes them a wise pairing for a movie like this, which needs to lean on quirkiness (barely new territory for any of them), and the cutting humor (see above), without the project somehow losing steam, becoming stale by trying too hard to be out there in the middle of spinning wheels, without go to nowhere. . artists who embed ideas in their antics, in their style, not always as successfully as in zola, but always with a paralyzing sense of intent.
zola is a strange film in almost every way, but above all it manages to convince us of that gap of the digital age, that layer of consciousness between the woman who thinks “what the hell?” and the woman who, having survived, is trying to make sense of it all. it’s a movie about the hyper-present, brilliant, wry, gleefully obnoxious, charming in the way he pulls zola away from this story she’s telling about herself. all of the above is the reason why, I hope, some people won’t know what to do with it. but the rest of us, trapped in our seats and glued to the screen as if by a train wreck, will see the film for what it is. the film is a journey into the depths of other people’s madness, one that is very interested in provoking questions about whose story this is, anyway, about the very fact of getting to be the one to tell it. A quick detour to “Stefani’s side of things” is a good example; the sheer humor and audacity of this is that by confronting these versions, the film makes us feel like these women have been taken to court, or rather, gives us a sense of how stefani would tell this story, a fantasy in itself.
the real-life zola on storytelling, sex work, and turning trauma into art
It’s no secret whose side the film is ultimately on, it’s no secret that Stefani’s version feels like a lie, even when Zola’s version is so outlandish it also tests belief. Or would if it weren’t for the feelings you see aroused in her. we are trapped with zola in this mess, and zola herself becomes trapped, but also bored. scared, but also overcome. this is not a tragedy. which is good, because the sharper notes of it stand out more clearly. stefani: a tragicomic nightmare, in one sense, and a source of complicated feelings, in another. she well-dokes zola in this story. she experiences a version of sex work that, for Zola at least, borders on degradation. x doesn’t respect her. the man who respects her has no power. What Zola has been involved in is not just a wild weekend she’d rather forget, but a close encounter with the photographic negative version of a life that she harrowingly overlaps with her own. It’s not as simple as saying that Zola could, under different circumstances, be a Stefani. however, sometimes, that’s exactly how she feels. and stefani’s last look at zola, in the backseat, on the way home, did she move me? is that possible? Either way, it’s the deciding factor. Stefani has problems. but the movie is careful not to dismiss her too easily as a mere villain.
It’s exciting that zola has emerged as fully formed and fresh as he is, with bravo’s wacky sense of humor and a vividly alienating style that makes him feel, at every turn, like he’s too much. . that’s bound to annoy some, with all those stylistic tics and brilliant meta-awareness; I wouldn’t be surprised to see some dismiss it as frivolous and opportunistic. but then, it is, in the best way. it capitalizes not only on the viral nature of the original story, but also on the high point of our specific tweet and the app’s insane moment, the saved gig, and the insanity. this film would not work as a period film; I can’t imagine how we’ll explain it to aliens.
but that’s the firecracker in the middle of the movie. Bravo, aided by a cast that couldn’t be bolder, turns a classic case of “these white people will be the death of me” (a familiar idea among the rest of us, I think) into a dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime experiment. blue moon on how to tell a completely modern, completely mediatic, confusing and unconventional story. she gives us a lesson in how to attract and repel, fascinate and alienate, entertain and frustrate in all the ways that the wild story naturally demands. it’s the kind of savvy, one-foot-in, one-foot-out attitude toward trash, cynically looking back, that a movie like Natural Born Killers strives for. zola is better. makes less effort. and says much more.