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Her name was ‘Zola,’ she was a stripper …

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You can turn just about anything into a movie.

Books and plays, sure. But also songs and TV shows and comic books. Cartoons and toys. Folk tales and urban legends. All of these things have been given the cinematic treatment over the years. Adaptation to the screen is a huge part of the movie business.

But can a Twitter thread become a movie? It can if it achieves enough viral notoriety that it becomes known as simply #TheStory.

That’s what we get with “Zola,” a film inspired by a legendary 148-tweet thread posted in 2015 by a Detroit waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King and the David Kushner story for Rolling Stone that followed. Adapted to the screen by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo, who also directed the film, it’s a surreal and darkly comic road trip to the heart of American darkness. You know – Florida.

It is a bleak and hilarious story, one whose based-in-reality bona fides strain credulity – in a good way. There’s an intensity to the tale, charged as it is with various flavors of cultural and societal mores being prodded, bent and broken. Again, we’re talking about a film – a story – that is inherently and utterly bizarre, yet wildly compelling, a fascinating glimpse of a world many of us have never experienced for ourselves.

“Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this b--ch here fell out?! It's kinda long but full of suspense.”

That’s how we meet Zola (Taylour Paige, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), a waitress and exotic dancer living in Detroit. One day at work, she encounters Stefani (Riley Keough, “The Devil All the Time”), a brash and blaccented woman who immediately compliments her on her chest. The two exchange pleasantries – Stefani asks Zola if she dances – and then numbers.

Just a couple of days later, Zola receives an invitation from Stefani to join her on a road trip to Florida where they can dance at a few clubs and make some serious money. With some reluctance – Zola doesn’t really know Stefani – she agrees. Just like that, Stefani shows up at her door. Joining them on the trip will be Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, TV’s “Succession”) and their roommate X (Colman Domingo, TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead”). And then – they’re off.

Initially, it’s all fun and games, singing along to the radio and dining on drive-through. But it isn’t long before some cracks appear in the veneer. They pull up to a fleabag motel, a trashy place where they deposit their bags (and Derrek) before heading off to the club to dance. It’s a bit of a disappointing evening, but they do OK. But it is after the club that Zola realizes that circumstances are far different than she was led to believe.

Suddenly, X is flashing a violent temper and placing pictures on Backpage advertising Zola and Stefani’s “services” – turns out, Stefani’s “roommate” is her pimp. And this was how the real money was going to be made all along. Zola refuses, even through X’s cajoling and vague threats. She does, however, wind up being part of Stefani’s process as she entertains a cavalcade of gentleman callers.

As the weekend progresses, things continue to spiral downward. Derrek is upset at Stefani’s behavior. X is growing ever more volatile and paranoid. Stefani continues to try and leverage her barely-there friendship with Zola. And Zola comes to the realization that if she’s going to get out of this situation intact, then the only person she can rely on is herself.

Now, you wouldn’t think that a Twitter thread could actually serve as the basis of a movie, but – at least in this case – you would think wrong. It is an undeniably compelling saga, one marked with fascinating characters and big twists. It is SO outlandish that it swings back around into believability.

Bravo and Harris make an ideal team for a film like this one, with both creators having a history of crafting sly and subversive work that challenges various cultural status quos – Harris wrote the celebrated and controversial “Slave Play,” just for instance. And the real deal Zola herself was apparently involved in the production as well, meaning that she maintained agency over her story in a way that she was denied it as the actual events unfolded. It’s smart and unsettling work, graphic and unflinching.

There are numerous devices at work here that are meant to marry this story to the medium in which it was first presented. Texting, for instance – rather than the nigh-ubiquitous method of showing them on screen, Bravo chooses instead to have the actors simply recite their texts as they write them, their deliberate monotone underlining the slack-jawed impact of omnipresent smartphones. But the best choice, to my mind, was the decision to mark every line directly lifted from the Twitter thread with that too-familiar tweet sound.

As for the performances, they are outstanding. Paige is a remarkably expressive actress, doing more with looks and gestures than many actors can achieve with paragraphs of dialogue. There’s a groundedness to her that balances nicely against the extremity of Keough, who is GOING FOR IT, offering up as strong a portrayal of self-serving cultural appropriation as you’re likely to see. Her high-octane selfishness and inherent duplicity is on full display. Domingo finds the proper blend of menace and charisma that you need to make this sort of character work, while Braun embodies the dim-witted cluelessness of a certain type of dude. Still, this is the Zola show – Paige is able to convey a sense of both outside observation and utter immersion that brings the whole bizarre scenario to vivid life.

It’s rare to feel like you’re experiencing something totally new at the movie theater, but that’s the feeling you get watching this film. It is smart and funny and unrelentingly weird, a sharp and surreal journey. Much like its inspiration, “Zola” is unequivocally one of a kind.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 July 2021 22:15


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