Tweet-based epic ‘Zola' is as wild as its source material

A’ziah King’s 148-tweet thread makes for an engaging onscreen tale

Brad Keefe
"Zola"

Hitting theaters earlier this week, “Zola” is a cultural event in the sense that it is the first major motion picture based on a tweetstorm. That tweetstorm itself, from 2015, was its own cultural event, and one with impressive staying power given the absolute cacophony that is Twitter.

"Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It's kind of long but full of suspense."

That how A'Ziah King, aka Zola, kicked off a 148-tweet thread of deceit, sex-trafficking and wild intrigue that was the social media equivalent of a page-turner. Even at the time, Twitter users were declaring it should be made into a movie. And director Janicza Bravo has brought the wild tale to life intact.

Zola (played by Taylour Paige) is a Detroit restaurant server by day and occasional stripper by night. She strikes up a friendship with a restaurant customer and fellow stripper named Stefani (Riley Keough). Stefani soon suggests that Zola join her on a hedonistic road trip to the mythical land of… Florida. She promises a journey of friendship, fun and easy money working the strip circuit.

Zola relents and finds herself hitting the road with Stefani, Stefani’s meek boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), and a mystery man known only as X (Colman Domingo).

If this trip went as planned, well, we never would have remembered this Twitter thread.

Bravo, working with King, who served as producer, recreates this too-wild-to-be-true tale in intricate detail.

The tone is more dreamlike than ominous, but the situations are often tense and discomforting. “Zola” is the wild roller-coaster you would imagine. It’s also free of judgment and doesn’t delve into much commentary on sex work.

Paige’s lead performance centers Zola as the only real sympathetic character. It’s a master class in side-eye and stoicism in the face of some truly bizarre circumstances.

Keough leans in as the sweet manipulator, particularly when it comes to her buffoonish boyfriend, whose naivety is hilariously summed up when he’s asked if he was homeschooled.

Bravo wisely avoids giving us an onscreen tweet-by-tweet replay of the original thread, although one nice callback is the way she uses the Pavlovian sound of “getting likes” to remind us what world we live in.

The well-cast leads and a glowing atmosphere highlighting the darker side of Florida overcome the fact that the source material isn’t always ideal for a movie structure. As such, “Zola” doesn’t so much come to a satisfying conclusion as it does run out of gas on the side of the road.

But, hey, that’s an appropriate feeling after the ride we just joined. “Zola” is often funny, sometimes tense and offers an overall hallucinatory trip.

“Zola”

Now playing in theaters

4 stars out of 5