Zola Just Doesn't Live Up to Its Exhilarating Source Material

The movie doesn’t, and maybe never could, live up to the initial hype of the viral thread

Zola Just Doesn't Live Up to Its Exhilarating Source Material

The night @zolarmoon dropped her famous 148-tweet thread story, a wild and terrifying nightmare tale of stripping and sex work in Florida, it felt more like taking in a Hollywood drama than reading a Twitter thread. Dashed out in speedy, 140-character increments, the stripper Aziah “Zola” King ratcheted up tension tweet by tweet, writing a digital blockbuster that attracted millions eagerly refreshing her thread for the next dispatch in her saga.

It’s not surprising that Hollywood looked at King’s tweets and saw dollar signs; the story had the potential to be a flashy, big-budget spectacle. But the problem, as A24’s new film Zola shows, is that the cinematic drama of King’s story was due largely to her voice as a writer and her chosen medium. King’s story was exhilarating, but it was especially compelling because Twitter wasn’t yet a medium where people told their near-death, crazy experiences with such dedicated specificity and humor. Zola is an adaptation that honors the story’s digital genesis in freaky, creative ways, but it also feels like witnessing the remnants of a sputtering, failed firework, a movie that doesn’t (and maybe never could) live up to the initial hype of its viral drop. Rather than capture the intensity of the original thread, Zola plays like an experiment in translating one woman’s social media posts into a feature film that feels eerily disconnected from reality.

Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, isn’t really an adaptation of King’s story. Instead, it’s an adaptation specifically of her tweets, retaining the choppy, clipped pace of King’s original thread rather than settle for a traditional arc. King’s tweets were selectively concise in the way any social media post is, zooming from location to location to get to the point, boiling conversations down to their extremes, letting us in on her internal monologue to offer a “…chill” and “oooommmgggggg really?!” Another director and writer would have taken King’s story and sanded its edges, blown up the characters into cartoonish extremes, and filled in the script with crazier scenarios within the confines of a clear narrative—all the makings of a Big, Crowd-Pleasing, Hollywood Movie.

But Harris and Bravo resist the impulse to make the film too shiny, digging deep into a vision that honors Zola’s roots as a distinctly social media phenomenon. Twitter notification and chat sounds make their way into the mix of dialogue, the camera cuts at one point to an impromptu iPhone music video shot to Migos, and in one tense scene an Apple volume bar appears on-screen and begins to lower the movie’s sound. In another scene, the characters arrive at a motel where a group of kids are playing basketball on a balcony in what appears to be a looping video clip not unlike an Instagram Boomerang, as the rest of the film’s characters move in real-time. It’s these touches that give the impression of watching Zola on an iPhone, in competition with other apps on the device.

The uncanny feeling of watching a movie that seems to exist as though it was filtered through social media is grounded by Taylour Paige’s performance as Zola. Paige speaks in a staccato rhythm that feels like an articulation of Twitter’s fragmented style. But for all of the original thread’s all-caps shock and awe (all “I’m standing there with my mouth to the FLOOR!!!!” and “OH HELLLL NAWLLL”), Paige plays Zola as a surprisingly disaffected narrator, incredibly cool in the face of Riley Keough’s whiny and loud performance as Stefani, the dancer who initially leads Zola into the messy trip stripping in Florida. Zola frequently feels like an outside narrator to scenes she’s an active participant in, rigid on-screen while her eyes scan the drama of the film back and forth, like Paige is the Mona Lisa and every other player is simply a tourist catching her gaze.

The original Zola thread was out-of-control, a romp through strip clubs and motel rooms that culminated in gunfire and a suicide attempt. But on-screen, all of that intoxicating drama and suspense feels flattened, even with Bravo and Harris’s trippy approach. After watching the movie, I wondered if the saga felt tedious because I already knew what happened to King and the rest of the film’s characters. But in revisiting King’s thread, it’s clear that the story’s magic lay in her incredible, frenzied narration as a writer.

From the moment she asked the internet void if they wanted to hear about “why me & this bitch here fell out???????” King’s tweets were funny and foul, coloring her experience so vividly and with such casualness that it felt like reading a chat log from a best friend with one incredibly juicy story. Bravo and Harris kept the real-life King in the loop on the movie’s production, a dispiriting rarity for social media creators whose work is sooner ripped off than given proper credit. But no matter how faithful the script is to her tweets, or how many times the film freeze-frames breaking the fourth wall with a voice-over, the movie doesn’t retain King’s voice.

The original Twitter thread was a thriller specifically built for a Twitter audience, with King an expert in grabbing the attention of its users, and the intimacy she created in her tweets is likely impossible to recreate effectively in a movie. On a platform crowded with mundanity, King’s tweets were a welcome, shocking storytime. But transformed into a movie, Zola doesn’t recreate the original blockbuster impact of first reading the thread, which is ultimately the most entertaining in its original form.

Zola premieres in theaters on June 30.

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