'Zola' Is The Ultimate Internet-Age Tale Of Messy Bitches Being Extra [Sundance Review]

Every generation gets a defining literary opening line – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” or “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams…” And for the generation alive and online in 2015, that honor inarguably goes to “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????”. The first tweet in A’Ziah King aka A’Ziah Wells aka Zola’s infamous 150-odd tweet thread has it all: high drama and the promise of more to come  (“It’s kind of long,” she continues, “but full of suspense”); an implicit trash-talking challenge couched in streetwise slanguage; and a completely irresistible eight (8) question marks. Not since “J’Accuse” has a Zola penned such an influential text, and sure, Emile’s version, which I think went something like “Y’all wanna hear a story about why Alfred Dreyfus & the French government fell out????????” did threaten to topple the Third Republic. But did it do so in pasties and six-inch see-through stripper heels? Bitch, please. 

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Of course, there’s been a long tradition of adapting classical literature into films, but the tweet thread is still unproven source material. And first hearing about “Zola,” the question really was whether director Janicza Bravo, in only her second feature after 2017’s irritatingly over-mannered anti-comedy “Lemon,” could capture the original’s electricity. There wasn’t only Zola’s inimitable prose to consider, with its admixture of pithy urban colloquialism, online abbreviations and sex worker jargon, sprinkled with a smattering of New Yorker op-ed vocab like “verbatim”. There was also the format itself, those 140-character bursts of excitable information, that came crackling through the ether in what felt like real time, each one containing some jawdropping twist, or some witheringly dry all-caps commentary. But Bravo and her largely female behind-camera team (DP Ari Wegner, editor Joi McMillon and composer Mica Levi, whose score is unusually gentle, marked with fairytale-ish glissandos) find ingenious ways to mimic the woozy, sometimes surreal, but often hilarious rollercoaster ride that was this (heavily fictionalized) trip to Florida, so that “Zola” lands somewhere on the glitter-neon spectrum between “Spring Breakers” and “Hustlers” – which is to say: it’s pretty much a blast, albeit a thin one.

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In fact, given that most who will see it are probably aware of Zola’s original tweets, the articles they inspired (including the Rolling Stone piece by David Kushner on which Bravo and “Slave Play“‘s Jeremy O. Harris based the screenplay) and maybe even the Reddit conversation in which “this bitch” (Jessica in the tweets, Stefani in the film) defended herself, it’s little short of miraculous that the movie “Zola” should feel like such a definitive retelling. It’s like we’ve somehow already read all the footnotes and now finally get to crack the spine of the actual book.

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For the uninitiated, however, or the Extremely Offline, or the recently awoken coma patients among you, the story of “Zola” is pretty simple. Waitress and part-time pole dancer Zola (Taylour Paige) befriends Stefani (Riley Keough) at the Hooters where she works — a female frenemyship that begins, naturally, when Stefani compliments Zola’s “perfect titties.” The very next day, after a successful night’s dancing as a duo at a local strip club, Stefani invites Zola to Florida for the weekend for more of the same. But the trip south goes South as Stefani’s bipolar boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun – yes, Nicholas “Cousin Greg” Braun) becomes more unstable when Stefani starts to “trap” (sell sex) to make more money, and the older guy she first introduced as her flatmate (Colman Domingo, listed as X here, but called Z in the tweets) turns out to be her controlling and violent pimp. 

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The wildly veering tone zigs and zags between slapstick comedy, acerbic satire, genuine menace and a strange hollow melancholy that these exuberant, unapologetic young women have so few and so tawdry options to choose from. And it’s perfectly evoked in the color and life that Bravo injects into every frame, liberally using voiceover, subtitling, freeze-frames, off-kilter sound design and text-on-picture – like the frequent time stamps that appear in the unmistakable layout of a clock on an iPhone screen – to remind us of the film’s thorny relationship with truth and technology. And her perfectly cast actors embody the often infuriatingly contradictory characters vividly –one of the greatest pleasures of the original series of tweets, which is preserved here, is the inherently humanist observation that everybody is a messy, dramatic bitch in their own way. Every person, however peripheral they may seem, has their own drama to star in, their own story to tell. X has an African accent that slips out when he gets angry; his gun-toting girlfriend, overflowing her fur bikini, deadpans “do it” when Derrek threatens suicide; Derrek himself, so often the butt of the joke, gets a sympathetic, quiet scene in the car while he waits for Stefani to finish her trick.

Really, though they all orbit the central Zola-Stefani axis. Paige is a terrific Zola, by turns spiky and surly, even if the film cannot quite account for the gap between her evident intelligence and common sense, and her continued participation in these escalatingly dangerous shenanigans (a problem baked in to the original tweets, it should be said, in which Zola is half the time a wry, incredulous observer and the other half a fully involved driving force).

And given that the whole story walks a very difficult line between feminist reclamation and misogynist exploitation – after all, the empowerment of one woman comes at the cost of disempowering another – the casting of Riley Keough is a masterstroke. Stefani might be the ostensible midpoint between Keough’s borderline sociopathic call girl in “The Girlfriend Experience” and her dead-eyed, star-spangled-bikini-clad hustler in “American Honey” but here she displays previously untapped comic timing, absolutely nailing the rhythms of Stefani’s terrible tryhard speech patterns. But more importantly, for the balance of a film that looks at her character snidely (a case in point: a very mean-funny freeze frame of her with eyes half-closed and mouth half-open, like in an unflattering snapshot destined for instant deletion) there is a native watchfulness in Keough that defies victimhood. So even though the tale is told entirely from Zola’s perspective – except a brief section headed “@stefani” in which she self-creates as a Jesus freak in a pastel blazer and which is so exaggerated it’s also basically a gag at her expense – Keough’s charismatic presence somehow neutralizes a great deal of the story’s cynicism.

Elsewhere the feminist credentials are more obvious. The men are all terrible, whether actively threatening like Domingo’s volatile pimp and Jason Mitchell‘s disgruntled Floridian lowlife, or simply pathetic, like Braun’s good-natured but comically dim-bulb cuckold Derrek. And while there’s a great deal of booty shaking and female nudity and a Russ Meyer-level love of boobs, especially enormous ones poured into too-small bikini tops, there’s a gleeful equal opportunities exploitation of male bodies too — in particular an amusing full-frontal montage of Stefani’s johns all dropping their underpants. Only one of the parade of dongs gets slapped with a heart-shaped “like” icon, and — spoiler alert — it’s not the smallest.

Inevitably, towards the end, the pace does flag as the craziness of the weekend starts to recede, and the hangover starts to settle on characters who have clearly learned absolutely nothing from their 72 hours or so of ultra-extra-OTT drama. But then we can’t really blame “Zola” for not being bigger than the material that inspired it, and part of the charm of that original series of tweets was how unrepentant it was. We’re used to women – especially women of color – who are sex workers or strippers being expected to atone for making money by using their bodies for the gratification of men, so it’s refreshing that “Zola” expects no such thing of them. Empowering, saddening, amusing and aggravating in roughly equal measure, with a very small side order of social critique, Bravo’s film marks a huge step up for her and a definitive answer to the question that @_zolarmoon posed to Twitter in October of 2015: yes, y’all do wanna hear the story about why she and this bitch here fell out!!!!!!!! [B/B+]

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