‘Zola’ Violates All the Rules of ‘Good Storytelling’ — Which Is Why It Works
A film inspired by a viral tweet thread could have gone any number of ways — indeed, the thread in question, out of which Janicza Bravo’s new feature Zola was born, goes everywhere. A stripper misadventure, a Backpage okey-doke, a chance encounter from hell, gun violence, a cuckolded boy toy, a suicide attempt, some awkward race bullshit, an extra helping of terrifying unpredictability — and a cutting sense of humor narrating it all. When Aziah “Zola” Wells took to Twitter, in 2015, to tell the story of “why me and this bitch here” — (below: photos of Zola and a woman the world would come to know as Jessica) — “fell out,” her 148-tweet screed hit the viral big leagues before Zola was even done telling her story. Zola was caught up in the fiery excitement of going viral mid-story, egged on by the thousands watching it unfold in retrospective real time.
Hollywood noticed — obviously. Ava DuVernay tweeted it quite succinctly: “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development” — the story had everything. (The director didn’t point out that these were all qualities Hollywood movies of the moment could use more of, but did she have to, really?) Yet: pitch this story as a movie, without the previous notoriety of the thread — just, the story in itself, pretending to be a movie — and you’d be laughed out of the room. Which in some ways makes it all the more telling.
Implausibility is one key to why Zola is such a disconcerting, curious, abrasive, intelligent, surprising, and likely polarizing joy. But the smart, hyper-stylish, coded and colorful direction of Janicza Bravo, who wrote the script with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, is what really makes it all swagger and singe. The could very well have told the story straight; the material so overwhelms, is so ridiculous, that it’s easy to imagine a writer-director pair kicking back and letting the story do the work, despite it being so atypical as a story, violating so many of the norms of “good storytelling” as it does. The characters don’t grow, the story doesn’t arc, the scenarios waver between being uncomfortably problematic and titillatingly so. Zola dips and swerves and wavers and spins with a punishing force akin to a vomit comet — with Zola dead center.
And that part — Zola at the center — is also key. This is a movie that takes care to exploit, not the storyteller herself, but the cacophony of ideas at stake in her testimony. Ideas about about sex work, and crazy white girls, and pimps and cucks and men with guns and, most of all, viral storytelling in itself, are what emerge, not from the plot alone, but from the tone: the alienation one feels, both from movie itself and on Zola’s behalf as she gets drawn, River Styx-style, into unknown hells. Zola makes you feel the itchy, uncomfortable gap between a tweet thread and life as Zola lives it for the span of this story. It heightens the banal in the way that our digital selves — replayable, retweetable, readymade to doomscroll, pliant in the way that all fiction is pliant — heighten the banality. On the surface, it’s a movie about a road trip from hell. But what happens is almost less important than how Zola tells us it happens. The telling isn’t just in the voiceover, borrowed from the tweets. It’s in the way Bravo morphs and manifests it all onscreen.
Zola is played in the movie by Taylour Paige, who nails the dynamic the movie is going for: so good at seeming unflappable externally as, inside, you know she’s losing it, in so many ways. She’s working as a waitress when she has the unfortunate luck of catching the eye of “this bitch right here” — a.k.a. Stefani (a titanically trashy Riley Keogh) — and getting drawn into a semi-friendship, then a road trip, then… Stefani is a sex worker; the man she’s with, X, (Colman Domingo), works as her pimp. But they sell Zola on this trip by eliding the part about sex — they make her think they’re just headed to Florida for a quick stripper side hustle. Zola’s not above that; she’s done that. So she tags along. As does Stefani’s — boyfriend? — gangle-paste boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), who takes pleasure in the worst Vine videos, who’s way too insecure in his attachment to be dating a sex worker, and but who’s also, unluckily for him, in love.
And they’re off. Watching Zola is like being trapped there with the titular heroine as she’s reliving the story, meaning we’re reliving it alongside her and also — as a constant stream of twittery clinks and digital trinketry in the soundtrack reminds us — watching it in the moment of its narration online. It’s like watching two accounts of the story at once, in the same moment: the things as they happened versus the things as Zola says they happened. Paige gives us the voiceover which, drawn from the tweets, makes it feel like it’s being recounted in retrospect. And part of the power of that is in her own canny wavering between a matter-of-fact elision of details (“So we vibing over our hoeism or whatever”), versus her attention-savvy embellishments, versus the all-caps “BITCH YOU GOT ME FUCKED UP” outrage that isn’t just retrospective: it’s live, present-tense feeling, not mere memory. It’s what Zola’s thinking, without always being able to express it — she doesn’t know these people; there’s a gun in her midst; who even is X anyway, and what’s with the multiple accents? — and it’s also what Zola’s going to tell us, later, that she was thinking.
It’s a strange thing to witness so many modes playing out at once; stranger still to feel like those modes are animate and alive, aware of each other. But the present tense of the film is also rich in its own right. It’s a pile-on of surprising dilemmas, Zola’s reactions to those dilemmas, and all the ideas that flood in with them. We may have arrived at Zola’s story by way of a Twitter screed, but Bravo’s movie is all about finding the right gloss, the right images, the nuances at the margins of Zola’s account, all of which mount in a sense of dire uncertainty. Bravo leans into the sense of fantasy that living online and sex work can both afford: little harp-laden, trickling interludes of Zola and Stefani dolling themselves up keep reminding us the gap between what twines them together in their heads versus the reality of what’s happening on the ground. As does what the film explores about sex work itself.
There’s a funny sequence — maybe that’s not the word — in which Stefani posts a Backpage ad for clients and Zola, who understands fantasy, who gets that reality isn’t the point, gives the ad a makeover, plays into mens’ baser, taboo desires. Bravo’s filmmaking makes it comical when the men show up: a parade of interchangeable bodies and dicks, the mens’ unnervingly similar stroke game (or lack thereof). It’s pointed, and the point is unmissable: the movie’s rending these men into the kind of transactional anonymity we generally impose on sex workers, not their johns. But it also heightens exactly that sense of transaction in itself. Money, money, money: Stefani, in her jailbait getup, is making it, and making it fast. (Zola’s first intervention: jack up your prices.)
But she’s not making it for herself. She, unlike Zola, is accountable to X. The business angle of it all, the unfairness of that, is a political point in a movie that doesn’t, on the surface, announce itself as political. Bravo, the film’s director, had her work cut out for her — and so did her co-writer, Harris. These are two artists whose work — Bravo, in her debut film Lemon; Harris, in his much-debated stage plays, A Slave Play and Daddy — makes them a wise pair for a movie like this, which needs to lean into the outlandishness (hardly new territory for either of them), and the cutting humor (see previous), without the project somehow losing steam, growing stale for trying too hard to be out there in the midst of spinning wheels, going nowhere. Artists who embed ideas into their antics, into their style, not always as successfully as in Zola, but always with a transfixing sense of intention.
Zola is an odd movie in most every way, but it succeeds most of all at convincing us of that digital-era gap, that layer of awareness between the woman thinking “What the fuck?” and the woman who, having survived it, is trying to make sense of it all. It’s a movie about the hyper-present, glittering, wry, gleefully distasteful, disarming in how effectively it alienates Zola from this story she’s telling from herself. All of the above is why, I expect, some people won’t know what to do with it. But the rest of us, stuck in our seats and glued to the screen as if by a train wreck, will see the movie for what it is. The movie is a doomscroll down into the depths of other peoples’ madness, one that is very keen to provoke questions about whose story this is, anyway — about the very fact of getting to be the one telling it. A quick detour into “Stefani’s side of things” is a case in point; the utter humor and daring of it is that by pitting these versions against each other, the movie makes us feel as though these women have taken each other to court, or rather, gives us a glimpse of how Stefani would tell this story — a fantasy in itself.
The Real-Life Zola on Storytelling, Sex Work, and Turning Trauma Into Art
It’s no secret whose side the movie is ultimately “on,” no secret that Stefani’s version feels like it’s a lie, even as Zola’s version is so outlandish that it, too, strains belief. Or would if not for the feelings you see being stirred up in her. We’re trapped with Zola in this mess, and Zola herself comes to feel trapped — but also bored. Scared, but also over it. This isn’t a tragedy. Which is good, because its most poignant notes stand out all the more clearly. Stefani: a tragicomic nightmare, in one sense, and a source of complicated feelings, in another. She okey-dokes Zola into this story. She experiences a version of sex work that, to Zola at least, verges on degradation. X does not respect her. The man that respects her has no power. What Zola’s been roped into isn’t just a wild weekend that she’d rather forget, but a close encounter with the photo-negative version of a life that overlaps with hers in distressing ways. It isn’t so simple as saying that Zola could, in different circumstances, be a Stefani. Yet sometimes, that’s exactly how it feels. And Stefani’s last look at Zola, in the back seat, headed home — moved me? Is that possible? Either way, it’s the clincher. Stefani’s got problems. But the movie takes care not to write her off so easily as mere villain.
It’s exciting that Zola has emerged as fully-formed and fresh as it is, with Bravo’s cockeyed sense of humor and vividly alienating style making it feel, at all times, like it’s all too much. That’s certain to bother some, with all those stylistic tics and the glossy meta-awareness; I wouldn’t be surprised to see some write it off as frivolous, opportunistic. But then, it is, in the best way. It capitalizes not only on the viral nature of the original story, but on the flashpoint of our specific tweet and app-addled, gig economized, batshit moment. This movie wouldn’t work as a period picture; I can’t imagine how we’ll explain it to the aliens.
But that’s the firecracker at the movie’s center. Bravo, abetted by a cast that couldn’t be more game, turns a classic case of “These white people will be the death of me” — a familiar idea among the rest of us, I think — into a dazzling, once-every-blue-moon experiment in how to tell an utterly modern, utterly mediated, confusing, offbeat story. She gives us a lesson in how to attract and repulse, fascinate and alienate, entertain and frustrate in all the ways that the story this wild naturally demands. It’s the kind of intelligent attitude toward trash — with one foot in and the other out, looking cynically back on it all — that a movie like Natural Born Killers famously strained for. Zola is better. It strains less. And it says far more.
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