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.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

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 and Riley Keough in "Zola."

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.

MORE: You read the tweets, now see the movie: 'Zola' tells Detroiter's tale

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

In theaters