Zola was anticipated. This is in part because the film, based on a viral 2015 Twitter thread written by blogger and stripper A’Ziah (“Zola”) King, faced delay after delay. Its original director, James Franco, dropped out in 2017 and was replaced by Janicza Bravo, who rewrote the script with playwright Jeremy O. Harris. After the film finally premiered at Sundance in January 2020, its theatrical release was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Zola is also something of a test case. As a cinematic adaptation of a story first told on social media, it features at its center unresolved questions about how to translate into film true-ish stories of contemporary life, particularly life online. What do writers and actors owe to their characters’ real-life analogues? When can embellishments bring a story closer to communicating truth? And, most important for understanding Zola, how can a movie depict the dizzying feeling of falling in love with an augmented persona, and then the disappointment in discovering its falseness?
The film follows the brief, tumultuous friendship of Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), the latter of whom is described by Bravo as a “white nightmare”—an amalgam of caricatured, misappropriated Black cultural signifiers and all-around dirtbag behavior. Stefani invites Zola on a road trip from Detroit to Tampa to make good money dancing at strip clubs, accompanied by Stefani’s “roommate” X (Colman Domingo), who turns out to be her pimp, and her clueless boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun). The weekend descends into a nightmarish bender of lies, violence, and exploitative sex work and ends in Derek and Zola intending to return to Michigan while Stefani and X remain in Floridian hell, reaching the apparent end of their brief friendship.
There are plenty of formal innovations in Zola. Bravo avoids rote film representations of online phenomena, allowing the jumpiness and oversaturation of the Internet to permeate its physical spaces. In an opening shot, Zola and Stefani dab on their makeup over gentle chime music in a dark, mirrored room, as if to mimic the tight focus of a Snapchat video, and when Zola breaks the fourth wall to direct the first line of King’s Twitter thread to the audience (“You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long, but it’s full of suspense”), it makes intuitive sense that the scene is an image that triggers a memory, overlaid with Zola’s reverie, its background faded over time while the foreground remains sharp.
Zola’s characters spend plenty of time on their phones, but there are no floating blue text bubbles, and very few over-the-shoulder shots of phone screens. Instead, characters often dictate their text messages to the camera, faces emoting vigorously while they speak in the pruned, flattened cadence of text-to-speech. This adds a strange pathos: When Zola’s boyfriend Sean (Ari’el Stachel) signs off a worried text by murmuring, “Heart emoji, heart emoji. Rose emoji, rose emoji,” it sounds like a tone poem, each syllable placed with care. Zola was shot on 16mm film, giving it the bright, dreamy vibe of an old home video. But the camera occasionally mimics the angles or pace of a contemporary phone recording: It swoops from hand to hand during a lip sync of the Migos song “Hannah Montana,” then switches briefly into reverse, and then back again as Stefani dances, like a video that has been looped using the Boomerang effect.
Zola is also peppered with references to memes and Internet leitmotifs, many of which originate in Black and queer online spaces, ephemeral but immediately recognizable to the very online. A casual conversation between Zola and her boyfriend on where to get dinner, for example, echoes the beats of a joke (about how girlfriends are not able to choose a restaurant) that has become Internet shorthand for low-hanging comedic fruit. Chatter about hormones in the water and fake chicken could belong in an Infowars broadcast, and a cutaway sequence of Stefani’s stage-managed, deeply racist version of events, based on a real Reddit post, captures the unreliability and self-righteousness of a defensive rant on that platform. There’s a cameo by trans icon Ts Madison, known for a marvelous Vine in which she tells the camera to “Step your pussy up… Get a job, own a business. Suck a dick,” who plays the spiritual leader of a Tampa strip club where Zola and Stefani go to dance.
The thread on which Zola is based comes from this universe of references, but it now has the rare distinction of circulating both as a meme and as art. “[A’Ziah King] had written something on Twitter that was an epic poem,” Harris told Vulture in a recent profile of King, and has elsewhere compared her to Homer, referring to the tongue-in-cheek nickname the Internet bestowed on the thread, “The Thotyssey.” Bravo compared making the film to adapting works in the theatrical canon: “I was like, ‘This is Ibsen. This is my adaptation of Ibsen…. This is me adapting Chekhov. It’s me adapting Shakespeare,’” she said. “I want to treat it the same way I would any of those texts.” In staying close to the source material, however, Zola loses some of its freewheeling spirit, missing opportunities its narrative structure presents.
A good adaptation builds a world that can add meaning to the original text, which requires a careful survey of the original work’s topography: its peaks and valleys, the gaps where context has been lost, lacunae best left unfilled. Zola is stylish and clever, but adds little insight into the emotional lives of its characters, to the film’s detriment. Characters stick to their archetypes: Stefani is defined by nastiness and duplicity; Zola is defined by resilience and common sense, which occasionally relegates her to the role of straight man, a proxy for the audience’s shock or bemusement at the deranged actions of others. (“Every one of my tables is fruit loops,” she tells a coworker at the restaurant where she first meets Stefani, a remark that proves prescient.) Zola’s infatuation with Stefani fades quickly: She’s sick of her new friend before they even arrive in Tampa. But, despite her disillusionment, she stays.
There are several reasons to maintain relationships with people who suck but seem exciting; this is a central tension of the Zola saga, a question with many fascinating possible answers. Why does Zola stick around once things in Florida start to go south? Bravo’s adaptation doesn’t land on a satisfying explanation: Stefani is manipulative and X is intimidating, but as the weekend unspools and their blunders pile up, it becomes clear that Zola is cannier and far more competent. After one night in Florida, she’s made more than enough money for a flight home to Detroit. Why stay in a bad situation with people you don’t like?
The thread, in its original context, offered more insight: King is a writer, and her foil (the woman known in the film as Stefani) made for good content, stories to stockpile and process later. King tweeted and deleted versions of the thread twice before posting the final, viral version; like the first drafts of other epics, these early ones seem to have been lost to history. But according to a Rolling Stone profile, they differed in tone from the final iteration, which was both darker and funnier. The thread began attracting attention before King was finished tweeting it, and she described riffing on the responses, “feeding off of [comments] to keep going.” Zola is ultimately a story about two women falling out, which means more if you know where they started. Where did that feeling of closeness come from, and where did it go? The appeal of the Twitter thread is that some of that love ends up redirected toward us, the audience—we are brought in, given the role of a friend receiving good gossip, which in its intimacy is both gratifying and limiting. “I found a sense of community on the Internet that I didn’t have in real life,” King told Time magazine in an interview this year. Losing a friend and winning over the Internet is how that part of the story concludes. But there are still pieces left outside the frame, pieces the film doesn’t supply. As with every good yarn, you’re left wanting to hear more.