The night @zolarmoon dropped his famous story of 148 threads of tweets, a wild and terrifying nightmare about striptease and sex work in Florida, it felt more like a Hollywood drama than reading a Twitter feed. Triggered in rapid 140-character increments, stripper Aziah “Zola” King increased the tension tweet by tweet, writing a digital blockbuster that has drawn millions of people as they eagerly refreshed her thread for the next dispatch in her saga.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood looked at King’s tweets and saw dollar signs; the story had the potential to be a flashy big-budget show. But the problem, like A24’s new movie Zola shows, is that the cinematic drama of King’s story was due in large part to his voice as a writer and his chosen medium. King’s story was exhilarating, but it was especially compelling because Twitter was not yet a medium where people recount their insane near-death experiences with such devoted specificity and humor. Zola is an adaptation that honors the digital genesis of the story in bizarre and creative ways, but it also feels like you’re witnessing the remnants of a failed and failed fireworks display, a movie that isn’t (and maybe never) lived up to the initial hype of its viral fall. Rather than capturing the intensity of the original wire, Zola plays like an experiment of translating a woman’s social media posts into a feature film that feels oddly out of touch with 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 a specific adaptation of his tweets, keeping the choppy, truncated pace of King’s original thread rather than just settling for a traditional bow. King’s tweets were selectively concise in the way any social media post would, zooming from location to location to get to the point, pushing conversations to extremes, letting us into his monologue. internal to offer a “… chill” and “oooommmgggggg really ?!” Another director and screenwriter would have taken King’s story and sanded its edges, detonated the characters in cartoonish extremes, and filled the screenplay with crazier storylines within the confines of a clear narrative – all the makings of a great Hollywood crowd-pleaser.
But Harris and Bravo resist the urge to make the film too bright, digging deep into a vision that honors ZolaIt’s as a phenomenon distinctly from social media. Twitter notifications and chat sounds make their way into the dialogue mix, the camera at one point cuts an improvised iPhone video clip facing Migos, and in a tense scene, an Apple volume bar appears on the screen and begins to reduce the sound of the movie. 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 an Instagram boomerang-like looping video clip, as the other characters in the film move around in time. real. These are the keys that give the impression of watching Zola on an iPhone, competing with other apps on the device.
The eerie feeling of watching a movie that seems to exist as if it’s filtered through social media is based on Taylour Paige’s performance as Zola. Paige speaks in a choppy pace that feels like a fragmented Twitter style articulation. But for all the shock and awe of the original thread (all of “I’m standing there with my mouth on the floor !!!!” and “OH HELLLL NAWLLL”), Paige plays Zola as a surprisingly disaffected, incredibly cool-faced narrator. to Riley Keough’s whiny and boisterous performance as Stefani, the dancer who initially led Zola on the messy, undressing trip to Florida. Zola often feels like an exterior narrator of the scenes she actively participates in, rigid onscreen as her eyes scan the drama of the film back and forth, as Paige is the Mona Lisa and every other player is just a tourist who catches his eye.
Zola’s original thread was Out of Control, an adventure in strip clubs and motel rooms that resulted in gun shots and a suicide attempt. But on screen, all that intoxicating drama and suspense seems flattened, even with Bravo and Harris’ trippy approach. After watching the movie, I wondered if the saga was boring because I already knew what happened to King and the other characters in the movie. But by revisiting king’s thread, it is clear that the magic of the story lay in his incredible frenzied storytelling as a writer.
From the moment she asked the internet void if they wanted to hear “why me and this bitch here fell out ???????” King’s tweets were funny and rude, coloring his experience so vividly and casually it felt like reading a best friend’s chat log with an incredibly juicy story. Bravo and Harris kept the real king in the loop on the production of the film, a disheartening rarity for social media creators whose work is rather scammed than credited. But no matter how true the script is to its tweets, or how many times the movie freezes on the fourth wall with a voiceover, the movie doesn’t retain King’s voice.
The original Twitter feed was a thriller crafted specifically for a Twitter audience, with King an expert at grabbing the attention of her users, and the intimacy she created in her tweets is probably impossible to effectively recreate in a movie. On a platform cluttered with worldliness, King’s tweets were a welcome and shocking story hour. But turned into a movie, Zola doesn’t recreate the original blockbuster impact of the thread’s first reading, which is ultimately the most entertaining in its original form.
Zola hits theaters on June 30.