• Sebastian Mann

Zola (2021) review

Zola, the film based on an iconic Twitter thread from 2015, might not be the most original experience but it’s a fun enough ride through the seedy underbelly of Tampa, Florida.

The A24 brand is undeniably distinct. Certainly, when it was announced that the rollercoaster, 148-tweet saga posted by Aziah “Zola” King was to be adapted into a feature-length film, no one expected anything different.

And Zola (styled @zola in the film, of course) is about what you would expect. Comparisons to films with a similar sun-soaked aesthetic by directors like Sean Baker or Harmony Korine are accurate, but Zola lacks a lot of the depth of its contemporaries - and, if you read the thread in its entirety, even seems to have watered down some of the characters.

There are four main players: the eponymous Zola (Taylour Paige), “this bitch” Stefani (Riley Keough), her dimwitted but patient boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her violent roommate and pimp, known only as X (Colman Domingo). Seduced by Stefani’s promise of getting rich quick working at some strip clubs for a few days down south, Zola leaves behind her waitressing job and the foursome travel to Tampa, FL.

This manages to blend its laughs with dangerous thrills, with a real sense of grit and authenticity

X rents a room in some dingy motel, where Derrek stays while the two girls work at the strip club. Not wanting to part with their earnings, they lie to X about earning nothing and he sets them up trapping, out of a hotel room. Stripping was part of the deal. Prostitution wasn’t.

What follows is so chaotic and enjoyable you struggle to believe it mostly (probably?) happened. As they try to navigate their way through this hellish cesspit of nocturnal Florida, they encounter armed hustlers, escape from hotels, and do everything they can to not get shot - be it by X or by vengeful rivals.

It manages to blend its laughs with dangerous thrills, with a real sense of grit and authenticity. There’s certainly a novelty in its origin as a string of surprisingly suspenseful tweets (fleshed out by David Kushner’s 2015 profile of King), and director Janicza Bravo captures the lives of sex workers in a frank, matter-of-fact way.

What it can’t do is divorce itself from this novelty. Throughout the film there are incessant audio and visual references to using Twitter, including little “tweet sent” whistles after Zola finishes narrating or the incorporation of the notification ping into the soundtrack or to punctuate tension. After the first few minutes, it starts to feel a little gimmicky. By the end, it’s like you’re sat next to someone on their phone, who’s more interested in scrolling Twitter than in what the film has to say.


Zola will be playing at the Sundance Film Festival: London on August 1.