‘Zola’ Turns A Viral Stripper Saga Into An Internet-Savvy Thrill Ride

Janicza Bravo’s new movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, beginning what should be a long life for this crowd-pleaser starring Taylour Paige.
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in "Zola."
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in "Zola."
Sundance Institute

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

It was October 2015, and that was the tweet heard around the world. It kicked off what became a viral, 144-tweet thread, authored by a Detroit stripper named A’Ziah “Zola” Wells, about how she got wrapped up in a virtual stranger’s frenetic Florida road trip.

On Friday, those same words made a starry comeback. They’re the first ones uttered in “Zola,” which brings its titular subject’s exploits to the big screen. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Janicza Bravo’s romp crosses the American South to chronicle a larger-than-life saga about an appropriating white woman (the ever-magnetic Riley Keough) who takes advantage of a Black pistol (Taylour Paige in a star-making turn). Under the guise of an excursion meant to generate cash from fruitful Florida strip clubs, the “bitch” in question brings along her doltish boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and manipulative pimp (Colman Domingo), sucking Zola into a whirlwind involving sex trafficking, attempted suicide, extortion and murder.

The Twitter thread led to a Rolling Stone report fact-checking Wells’ account, which became the source of Bravo’s script, co-written with acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Wells had hyperbolized select details, while others were refuted by her travel companion, who insisted she had never in her life traded sex for money. But Bravo isn’t here to parse fact from fiction. “Most of what follows is true,” a title card cheekily announces at the start. As far as “Zola” is concerned, verifying the veracity of Wells’ perspective is beside the point. The film trusts her voice, right down to the quippy vernacular evidenced on Twitter, which makes the ensuing ride all the more electric. (The movie credits Wells as A’Ziah King, her married name.)

Zola meets her future companion, Stefani, while waitressing at a sports bar. In almost no time, Stefani, who cribs Black slang and sees herself as Zola’s peer, is texting Zola to invite her to Florida, where the nightclub clients appreciate new dancers to toss dollar bills at. But Stefani initially withholds details about her pimp, and what starts as a fun expedition with Migos singalongs quickly devolves when Zola says she’s not interested in sleeping with johns. With nowhere else to go, she starts soliciting higher pay rates for Stefani, unaware that most of the money will nonetheless land in the pimp’s pockets. Meanwhile, Stefani’s beau is back at a motel befriending the wrong crowd. Before long, people are firing guns.

Nicholas Braun, A'ziah King, Janicza Bravo, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo at the "Zola" premiere on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Nicholas Braun, A'ziah King, Janicza Bravo, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo at the "Zola" premiere on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images

“Zola” balances revelry and brutality with an effervescence that sometimes turns slightly eerie. As the weekend trip gets seedier, Bravo finds moments to slow the action to a lull, underscoring how alone Zola feels amid a predicament she didn’t ask to be part of. That dichotomy — “Blue Velvet” meets “Bodak Yellow,” as Bravo brilliantly described it when I profiled her for HuffPost’s recent Culture Shifters package — is where the film finds a groove. The gifted composer Mica Levi, best known for “Jackie” and “Under the Skin,” fashioned perfect music to guide the energy, intertwining pep and dread. Levi’s score baptizes us in the proceedings, often incorporating natural sound: iPhone notifications pinging, kids bouncing basketballs outside, the car tires rolling on asphalt.

What’s also striking about “Zola” is how it diverges from other movies of its kind. Many pitch-black satires color suburbia with a picturesque lens, employing cotton-candy hues as an ironic contrast to the squalor beneath the surface. Bravo avoids leaning too hard into that conceit. Instead, she treats the internet as her aesthetic pilot. The selfie-happy characters read their text messages aloud as if they’re dialogue, sometimes even reciting the real Zola’s tweets directly to the camera. (Breaking the fourth wall to wink at the audience has become an exhausting trope thanks to weak films like “Bombshell” and “Vice,” but here it’s clever.) At times, we see Zola primping in front of a mirror, the camera gliding around her to create a surreal atmosphere. “Who you gonna be tonight,” she asks herself, aware that she can mold the outcome to project whatever ideal she choses. What’s more social-media-savvy than that? “Zola” understands time and place: present-day America, where the commodification of selfhood trickles offline and into our increasingly crooked real world.

If there’s one major place where “Zola” could improve, it’s the ending. After an energetic first half, the film settles into a tamer grind, losing a close read on its supporting players before ending rather abruptly. That choice denies us one final punch as Zola finally flees the nuisances she’s been subjected to. Luckily, there’s enough to make up for it. I even suspect a second viewing might yield a different assessment. After all, does any saga in our hyperdigital age manage a tidy conclusion? For the Extremely Online, encountering the next day’s melodrama is an inevitability, no matter how distorted the truth may be.