New Film of the Week: Zola
‘So dreads goes “my dudes downstairs not gone just let u walk out wit her like that” & z said “we’ll see” …mind u i can barely see Im around the corner. So i just hear everything…next thing i know i hear some shuffling & a gun goes off..once again I TAKE OFF.’
So goes The Story: a mostly true Twitter thread composed of 148 madcap tweets by the eponymous A’ziah “Zola” King. Zola wants to tell us a story, of the fallout when waitress Zola (Taylour Paige) is taken on a road trip (or, in the words of Zola, a hoe trip) with exotic dancer Stefani (Riley Keogh), her barely kept-together boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and an unnamed and menacing pimp (Colman Domingo) to make some money in Florida. In the hands of Janicza Bravo, that story is volatile, deranged, hilariously horrifying, and without a doubt the most fun I’ve had in the cinema for years.
I’d argue that all of Zola’s success comes in just how well Bravo manages to translate it from screen to… screen. She manages to capture the purpose and energy of King’s storytelling to a startling degree, especially where others have tried and failed in constructing a film where social media and the behaviour that stems from it is the medium (Host, a sharp and fun quarantine Zoom horror, is about the only other exception that comes to my mind—however it uses social media as a framing device more than an integral theme). Zola is highly engaged with its own mode of storytelling and gung-ho showmanship, yet often detached from the real life nightmare unfolding in front of these characters; so consciously online that that there’s a screen put up between themselves and everything they do.
David Kushner, a journalist who profiled King and confirmed the veracity of most of The Story, has been quoted as believing that the tweets the world knows may have been a second or third attempt at the narrative. Telling a story as dark as this in an engaging manner and then having it go viral takes graft, and comic talent—something King understands. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it.” The elixir for that? “Because it was entertaining.” While her story has been reframed (Kushner), refuted (the real life Stefani: Jessica) and readjusted (the real life Derek: Jarrett), or misattributed (often to Kushner’s profile) and misrepresented by an original team led by James Franco, King’s story has endured and thrived in it being authentically her own. Bravo understood this, fighting for King to receive Executive Producing duties on Zola and using the tweets almost verbatim as narration.
Because, at its heart, Zola is a harsh tale. It’s an authentic, first person and ground level exploration of dancing, sex work, and in the end, of two young women shanghaied into sex trafficking; told with pitiless focus and unruly energy and wit. That aforementioned barrier of the screen isn’t an indictment on social media: that we’ve become too desensitised from real life that the severity of these stories no longer hold impact. It’s more an enactment of an unsaid acceptance of how people naturally engage with certain topics online. This is a dark, dark story, emceed to millions by someone who understands pace, humour and thrills sell better than real life horror.
That barrier that lets us enjoy the unenjoyable can be seen in everything. It’s in Bravo’s red-lined direction, with deadpan tone, brevity, and plastering the on screen world with Instagram heart-reactions, screenshots, volume changes and other on-screen realities. It’s in Joi McMillon’s whiplash editing: balancing tonal shifts and employing high concept montages and sudden sound-based match cuts, the latter with such frequency and effectiveness it recalls the editing of Jean-Marc Vallée’s team. (There‘s not much higher praise than that from me).
It’s in the cinematography by Ari Wegner: doused in kaleidoscopic colour and composed with a considered eye for style. Zola is visually obsessed with repetition, from the synchronised montage of clients to the continual car journeys, or the way characters morph into shades of themselves in mirrors and overlays. Social media as a force is determined by a wavelength: be consistent, maintain image, maintain persona; graft over 148 tweets and never miss a beat.
It’s in Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris’ devious and self-mangling screenplay: more than willing to self-reflexively break the entire filmic world to give Stefani a Reddit-based comeback sequence and Riley Keogh some delicious deliveries: “Everyone loved me. Reason to be a jealous bitch number one!” It’s in the premier film composer Mica Levi’s genius score, that keeps it deceptively simple so as to perfectly synthesise with the social media infected sound design—the whistle of oncoming tweets forever piercing the fabric of Zola.
And last, and of course not least, it’s in the lead casts mesmerising, batshit performances. Paige is at once confident narrator and disturbed passenger, giving Zola depth and savvy; Keogh is, to steal my viewing partner and fellow contributor to this site’s perfect quote, scarier than 95% of contemporary horror cinema. Both are the obvious standouts, but pulling in HBO underdogs Domingo (Euphoria) and Braun (Succession) to shine in the roles they have: that’s just filthy. All four, and their supporting players, sell the darkness of everything while reflecting the humour and energy of the source. They deserve the world.