Review: 'Zola' comes to life, from phone screen to big screen
Detroiter's epic 2015 Twitter thread becomes a madcap adventure in this adult fairy tale.
It may be the greatest Twitter thread-turned big screen adventure ever made.
Of course it's also the only — or at least the first — Twitter thread-turned big screen adventure ever made, so there's nothing to compare it to. But "Zola" is undoubtedly a wild night out, a madcap journey into a rowdy world of stripper poles, internet prostitution and sticky-hot Florida nights. What could potentially be a very seedy tale is lightened by the way the story is almost awestruck with itself; it's not that innocent, but its telling gives it a dream-like sheen, which makes it go down like a fluorescent-lit adult fairy tale.
Taylour Paige stars as Aziah "Zola" King, the Detroiter at the center of the story, who back in 2015 thumbed out a 148-tweet thread that took the internet by storm and had readers hanging on her every twist and turn. Detroit never gets a title card in the movie — nor does Roseville, where King was working as a waitress at Hooters at the time of the telling — rendering the film's local ties unfortunately unspoken.
While on a shift at her restaurant, King meets Stefani (Riley Keough, trashing it up in glorious fashion), with whom she makes an instant connection. Stefani invites her on a road trip to Florida along with her pimp, X (Colman Domingo) and her doofus boyfriend, Derek (Nicholas Braun, doing an even more clueless version of "Succession's" Cousin Greg) to clean up for the weekend at some high-ticket Florida strip clubs.
The trek quickly goes off the rails — there's a kidnapping, an attempted suicide and various other brushes with the dark side — and yet "Zola" floats by like a buzzy sugar rush to the head, and nothing knocks it off its cloud.
Director Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the screenplay with first-time screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris, frames the story like it's popping off a phone screen; tweet notifications ding throughout to alert viewers to source material specifics, reminders of iOS updates of yore. Meanwhile, avant-garde composer Mica Levi's ("Jackie") score stacks layers of harps that add to "Zola's" softened version of reality.
Harmony Korine's neon-lit fever dream "Spring Breakers" has similar DNA, but "Zola" is grittier and grainer, while still engineered as a comedic fantasy rather than a cautionary tale. The ending comes quickly and rather unceremoniously; you may be left wishing there was a little more there there. Yet as an extravagant, not-meant-to-be-taken-as-gospel yarn, it's like a rollicking group chat brought to life, and it makes one hell of a story.
Rated R: for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault
Running time: 90 minutes