In October 2015, A’Ziah “Zola” King, regaled social media with a 148-thread tweet about a “ho trip” that had gone south after she agreed to travel to Tampa to strip with a stranger she met when she was working as a Hooters waitress. The basic premise of this story is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice, but it speaks to the spiraling madness that has become American pop culture. Zola (2020), the new film by director Janicza Bravo (of Gregory Go Boom fame), brings this FloridaMan saga to life on the big screen with all of the unglorified mess that comes with stripping, love, sex, mayhem, and murder.
The titular Zola (Taylour Paige) begins narrating the initial tweet of this epic tale by talking about how she met Stefani (Riley Keough) waiting tables at a Hooters in Detroit. Stefani compliments Zola on her body, asks if she dances, and they become instantly drawn toward each other. Zola has made thousands of dollars on the pole, so this is not such a far-fetched question.
After knowing Stefani for a mere day, Zola is asked to head down to Tampa under the guise of making money stripping at some clubs. Zola doesn’t see the harm in going, but she’s somewhat thrown by the idea of travelling with someone she doesn’t know that well. After grilling Stefani for a bit, Zola is assured that she’ll just be with her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun of HBO’s Succession) and roommate X (Colman Domingo). Things get off to a rough start as the women are taken to a run-down motel. She and Stefani will be working at the clubs anyway, so their staying in the room won’t be an issue. After a few shows, Zola has made some money and prepares to return home.
This is where she hits a few major bumps in the road in accordance with King’s actual tweets. X is not so much Stefani’s roommate but her pimp, and the trip was set up to “trap”—or, in stripper lingo, prostitute. And this is not at all what Zola had in mind. Unfortunately, she is in over her head and cannot flee the situation. X has set up some jobs for Stefani, but Zola quickly realizes that Stefani is not being adequately paid. This leads Zola to set up her own Backpages ad for Stefani, and they end up raking in thousands of dollars in one night. Meanwhile, back at the motel, an antsy Derrek is befriended by a guest with less than noble intentions. Pimping, as Big Daddy Kane says, ain’t easy. While Zola thinks she’s helping Stefani out, she has no idea what this wild ride will entail next.
From a cultural standpoint, Bravo’s film pushes a hodgepodge of American third rail buttons, but handles them relatively well. Without missing a beat, a scene in the car reveals Stefani calling another stripper “nappy-headed,” as if there are no racial connotations to this slur. At the absolute tone deafness of Stefani’s behavior, Zola’s incredulous expression is all of ours.
As almost all dialogue from the film is lifted straight from King’s original tweetstorm, the little notification dings metaphorically go off on cue to keep the story moving at a good pace. Watching a man running and laughing maniacally on a pool deck with a shotgun might be the most American thing seen in a film in a long time. It may only be 90 minutes, but Bravo does not waste a second keeping the thread moving from one tweet, or scene, to the next. The dialect coaches also deserve an award as Riley Keough transcends every fiber of her being and serves straight, ratchet, hoodrat realness from the jump.
In retrospect, it’s interesting to consider the now-deleted tweets that serve as the primary source for the film. But the Internet never forgets. Tweets and other social media posts have quickly surpassed primary and secondary sources as information for journalism. In our must-have-it-this-instant world where no one can postpone gratification, it makes perfect sense that a sensationalist story such as this one would be turned into cinematic cannon fodder. Surely, embellished fact is stranger, and, if nothing else, more satisfying than fiction. The reality that anyone can have anonymous sex delivered to their door in minutes is nothing short of miraculous.
As a distributor, A24 continues to take big risks, and they have paid off so frequently. On paper, the idea of recreating and translating a series of tweets should not work, but of course, Zola delivers with a graininess that gives it an extra layer of seediness. Bravo in particular shows that she has a knack for directing not just short films but features as well. Zola is one reason to put your mask on and head to a (Marcus or AMC) theater.