There is no other movie that sounds quite like Zola. Throughout the film, directed by Janicza Bravo, a series of dings, whooshes, and chirping sounds are almost omnipresent, and for viewers who, like the subjects of the film, are extremely online, those noises should be instantly recognizable. These pings form the soundscape of Twitter—the noises that play when a user sends a tweet, or when a new tweet appears on a user’s timeline—and designate Zola as the first movie of its kind. It’s not just based on social media, embracing its origins in being adapted from a viral tweet thread. It’s about social media.
The original thread, written by A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015, became such a sensation that King now has “I invented threads” in her Twitter bio. Over the course of 148 tweets, King told a story about traveling to Florida to pole dance with a new friend, and how, at an alarmingly fast pace, the trip devolved into a whirlwind of sex and violence. The movie—like its advertising—captures much of the zippiness and fun that made following Zola’s tweets so exciting, but Bravo and her co-writer, the Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris, never lose sight of the fact that, as thrilling as these events might be to experience vicariously, they must have been unpleasant and even terrifying to actually live through.
Taylour Paige, who plays the film version of Zola, captures that balance perfectly. Her voice-over, which pulls directly from the real tweets, is delivered in the knowing and wry tone of one friend gossiping to another. Her physical performance, while still totally self-assured, leaves room for the uncertainty that comes with realizing you’re in way over your head. She’s nonplussed by her new friends, Stefani (Riley Keough) and her pimp X (Colman Domingo), but her confidence can only carry her so far in the face of the extreme measures that X appears willing to take, and the extreme people that he and Stefani bring into Zola’s orbit.
Events aside, the film’s style also leans into a sense of push and pull. Bravo doesn’t shy away from stylistic flourishes. In one sequence, she seemingly changes sets while the actors remain in place, while for another, one of the film’s funniest and most unsettling, she cuts together a montage of penises. But in other, key sequences, she lets the flourishes drop away. As the trip becomes increasingly fraught, the dominant stylistic force becomes silence, forcing viewers to sit down with darkness. Stefani’s mannerisms, from her Bhad Bhabie–esque accent, to her braids, to her acrylic nails—at the film’s Sundance premiere, Paige described her co-star’s character as being “in blackface the whole movie”—is grotesque from the moment she enters the frame, but she becomes even more so as the viewer realizes she isn’t as innocent as she seems. Meanwhile, her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Succession’s Cousin Greg) is clearly a little too invested in their relationship, and not at all equipped to handle the intensity of the life she leads.
Through it all, the Twitter noises are nearly constant, reminding the audience of the social media platform that provided this story with a stage in the first place, but Bravo and Harris take things a few steps further in exploring the nature of social media and how it allows anyone to tell a story. Midway through the film, there’s a detour into another character’s version of events (posted on Reddit, as the movie takes care to note), and the way it’s filmed immediately sets it apart. Everything, from the costumes to the lighting to the characters’ mannerisms, is suddenly exaggerated, and it doesn’t seem to be an accident that it comes off as appropriative and exploitative of the spotlight on Zola rather than an attempt to really clear things up.
But for how smart the film can be, it also feels somewhat abbreviated. There’s clearly more beneath the surface that’s left to be explored—a passing scene involves Zola witnessing a Black man being forcibly arrested for seemingly no reason, suggesting a deeper story about race relations in America than the dynamic between Zola and Stefani scratches at—but Zola’s 90-minute runtime doesn’t leave much time for anything that wasn’t already in the original thread. Then again, that, too, is the nature of Twitter: 140 characters (280, now) is rarely enough to contain the full picture. But the ingenuity that Bravo brings to the direction and the electricity that every actor brings to the material make that an easy shortcoming to breeze past, at least for the film’s duration. Like the thread it’s based on, it’s easy to rush through, even if does visit some darker places. It’s only if you pause for a moment, and linger on it, that you might wish there were more.