‘Y’all wanna hear a story…’ – Zola (Film Review)

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In October 2015, waitress/stripper Aziah “Zola” King broke the internet with a 148-long Twitter thread that went viral. With an exceptionally innate sense of storytelling, she regaled her followers- then the rest of the world – with her story of a work road trip that went wild. The kind of story that gets wilder with each detail: compelling, thrilling and sort-of frightening in equal measure. Rolling Stone magazine followed up with an investigative piece a month later. Three years later distributors A24 picked up the movie and principal photography began. This is that movie.

If you’ve not read the thread already, save it for after the movie. That way you can strap in and enjoy the journey by going in totally blind. Enjoy is the right verb choice here, because this film is a genuine pleasure to watch. As mad and awful as things get, it’s constantly a total thrill to watch. Writer-director deftly characterises Zola (Taylour Paige) and the ‘white bitch’ she met a Hooters, Jessica (Riley Keough) in a way that never feels exploitative or judgemental. These women may work in these industries, but they’re never condemned for doing so. Even when some of Jessica’s actions get very… questionable, there’s a fantastic cinematic decision that adds to the film’s sense of knowingness and continued questioning over fiction vs reality and the act of storytelling.

The very fact this film is based on a tweet says much about our consumption of information, but also about the presentation of self. Zola’s original tweets were deftly written, aimed to entertain and with a self-confessed amount of inflation of scandal to provoke & entertain. We live within a digital landscape that expects this of us – depending on our ability to repackage ourselves and our lives for the consumption of the countless faceless. The film does an incredible job of exploring this too, again without judgement or definity.

We can chose to believe in how much of this actually happened and whether events really played out in the way she tells it. Anyone who has read the thread knows there’s a lot going on here. To avoid spoilers for those who haven’t, all you need to know is that, a few days after meeting, Jessica invites Zola on a trip to Florida to work at a club she seems to know well and is certain will rake them in a lot of money for their time. When Jessica’s car pulls up at Zola’s, she’s not alone in the car. Her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and their roommate (Colman Domingo) are coming to – that’s just the start of it.

Whilst the foundations are compelling enough – it cannot be overstated how insane this story is – it’s the film’s construction that make it worth the hype. The central performances are extraordinary. Paige manages to convey depths of emotion with the smallest of deadpan micro expressions. Keough is a powerhouse that you can’t look away from. Domingo is terrifying, a menacing and malicious tornado of terror. Ari Wenger’s cinematography is exquisite, finding beauty within revulsion and revulsion within beauty. At times oppressively intimate, at other times distant and dissonant, it effortless replicates the sense of the thrilling terror of being along for the ride with no idea where you’re going. Just like the storytelling overall – it’s slick, exciting, provocative and audacious.  A total must-see.

[4/5 stars]