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Review: Zola

July 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

“Y’all wanna year a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It’s kind of long, but full of suspense.” This was the first post from Twitter user A’Ziah “Zola” King in a 148-tweet thread posted in 2015, detailing a wild weekend road trip that she took to Florida with a fellow stripper.

These are also the opening lines of Zola, a new A24 movie that finds director and co-writer Janicza Bravo adapting that now-infamous Twitter thread for the big screen with entertaining if slightly mixed results.

The film recounts the story of how Zola (played by Taylour Paige), a stripper working as a waitress in a Detroit diner, befriended and subsequently fell out with a chatty customer named Stefani (Riley Keough), with the two bonding over their shared experience as dancers.

When Stefani promises a way for them to make thousands of dollars in one night dancing at a club in Miami, Zola ends up going on a road trip to Florida with her new friend. Along for the ride are Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and an intimidating man named X (Colman Domingo), who happens to be her pimp. Zola soon realizes that all is not as it seems, and Stefani actually plans to make money through more involved forms of sex work, and has tricked her into getting involved.

More so than just telling this story, Zola also embraces its origins as being a movie based on a Twitter thread. Bravo has crafted a highly stylized film that features running narration from Zola, and includes moments where she breaks the fourth wall. While these stylistic touches are sometimes effective, Zola also can’t quite overcome some of the challenges that you would expect from a movie based on a series of social media posts. The character development is pretty thin, and the narrative has a sort of slapdash quality to it, with the film clocking in at just over eighty minutes and stripping the story down to only its most basic elements.

Perhaps its because the Twitter thread has entered public consciousness, but Zola has a predictability to it that dampens the suspense we are promised in the opening lines. While there are certainly moments of tension in the individual sequences when Stefani and Zola end up trapped in some compromising situations, the film can’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time. At times the film struggles to find the balance between being a wild, Spring Breakers-type comedy and a more serious look at sex work, which prevents it from leaving more of a lasting impact.

The film also uses a chirpy tweet sound effect to signify certain story beats, a stylistic touch that becomes slightly irritating and kept taking me out of the movie. With that said, the performances are solid, and do keep us engaged. Paige is very good in the title role, especially in moments when we see it starting to register on her face that everything is not as it seems with her new friend. Keough commits herself to the role of Stefani, the sort of trashy white girl who tries desperately to sound Black, and while her portrayal can become somewhat grating, this is a testament to how believably she plays the character.

Domingo proves to be a commanding presence as the conniving pimp, and Braun finds moments of both humour and pathos in his portrayal of the pathetic boyfriend who is in way over his head. While I don’t know if movies based on Twitter threads needs to become a trend, let alone ones that make their origins so obvious, Zola is still a pretty entertaining dark comedy that largely does justice to the posts that inspired it.

Zola is now playing in select theatres in cities across Canada, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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