We got a weird one tonight, folks.
Zola was adapted from a thread on Twitter, comprised of 148 tweets back in 2015. Yet the screenplay is ostensibly based on the David Kushner article about the selfsame Twitter thread. Why? Because this is literally the first time a movie has ever been based on a Twitter thread. Nobody has any idea how writing credits or royalties are supposed to work with a case like this, the WGA simply doesn’t have any rules or regulations about it.
In any case, Kushner and A’Ziah “Zola” King are both listed among the credited writers and exec producers on this film adaptation. But it’s worth noting that where accounts differ between the two, the film typically tends to side with Zola as the primary storyteller. Moreover, the title card up front tells us that the movie is based on “mostly true” events.
The titular Zola (here immortalized by Taylour Paige) is a woman in Detroit who splits her time working as a waitress and a stripper to support her well-meaning deadbeat boyfriend (Sean, played by Ari’el Stachel). Things get moving quickly after a chance encounter with Stefani (Riley Keough), who’s also a stripper. Only a couple of days after their chance meeting, Stefani whisks Zola away for a weekend in Tampa, so they can dance at a club where they can make thousands of dollars a night. Along for the ride are Stefani’s boyfriend (Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate”, known only as X (Colman Domingo).
Long story short, it turns out that X is Stefani’s pimp and the both of them came down to Tampa so that Stefani could have sex with paying clients. Even worse, the both of them were planning on roping Zola into this scheme as a second unwitting prostitute. And there’s reason to believe that this isn’t the first time Stefani has done this with a new “friend” she just met.
Let’s pause for a moment to look more closely at our four primary characters. First of all, it’s immediately obvious that Stefani is hopelessly vapid and superficial to a fault. She doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together, and stripping is probably the only honest job she’s ever had. This is the archetypal woman who’s coasted through life on good looks and charm, taking everything that’s handed to her without questioning anything or asking for anything more, never mind thinking anything through. Oh, and Stefani apparently has a young child who’s only mentioned once and never brought up again, so make of that what you will.
As for Derrek… well, he’s a loser, plain and simple. This is the kind of guy who continuously loops the same TikTok video millions of times, laughing with every loop, talking a big game about how he’s going to make videos like this someday because there’s good money in it. He’s Dunning-Kruger personified, a sad sack too stupid to know how weak and pathetic and useless he is. But as the film unfolds, Derrek is confronted with that knowledge to the point where he’s unable to ignore it or deny it any longer. This is a man at the breaking point, with absolutely nothing to lose except the love of a woman who never really loved him in the first place. And it’s anyone’s guess which way he’ll ultimately break.
Then we have X. He’s unstable, he’s paranoid, he’s violent, he’s possessive, he’s manipulative… any way you slice it, he’s bad news. X is charismatic and charming to the point where it’s easy to see how someone so stupidly vain could be taken in by him. Yet he’s also dangerous enough to make it clear why Zola doesn’t simply up and leave when she probably should.
Which brings us to Zola herself. This is a professional stripper and a seasoned veteran of her trade. She knows the rules, she knows her limits, and she knows how to safely perform as a sex worker. It also bears mentioning that she’s brutally honest, though she knows when to keep her mouth shut, which makes her great for us as a narrator. (“They fucked. It was disgusting.”)
Really, the whole point of Zola is that she’s our narrator. She’s the eyes and ears of the audience. And on many occasions (i.e., when she’s calling the characters out on their bullshit) she’s also the voice of the audience. Which brings us to an important and really quite fascinating point.
The film never lets us forget that this whole story is a dramatization of Zola’s social media page. At one point, the filmmakers take a detour to dramatize Stefani’s rebuttal on Reddit, in which she’s the center of the story, she’s always in the right, and so on. It sends the message that on social media, every post is exclusively from the writer’s perspective. Moreover, a crucial aspect of social media — most especially for people like Zola and Stefani, whose looks are their livelihood — is that it allows the users to show themselves in the best possible light. On social media, we can only see what we want to see and show what we want to show.
Online, everyone is an unreliable narrator. Including and especially Zola.
To reinforce the point, the whole movie is presented in an overly stylized manner. The characters constantly break the fourth wall, and there are numerous flourishes with the sound design. (The rhythmic bouncing of a basketball is perhaps my personal favorite example.) That’s not even getting started on the numerous fades and cutaways — at one point, we fade from Zola’s face to an iMac screensaver to show us her state of mind in the moment. Hell, even the film grain is saturated to such an extent that any pretense of realism is shot to hell.
With all of that said, we run into an obvious problem: In a movie so heightened and blatantly artificial, in which none of the characters are reliable or consistently honest, in which the opening title card tells us right up front that this story is only half-true, is there ANYTHING sincere or authentic about this movie?
Before answering that question, I’d like to address the elephant in this particular room. Longtime readers may be aware of my own personal working history in researching and working with strippers, most especially for “From the Ruby Lounge”, my writing/producing live theatrical magnum opus. The bottom line is that I am not, nor have I ever been, a sex worker of any kind and my opinion should not be held above that of anyone with personal working knowledge of the subject.
I am not the real thing… but I know the real thing when I see it. I’ve made enough mistakes and I’ve done enough interviews to know when somebody hasn’t done their homework. I spent over six of my best years developing a play that showed strippers and sex workers in a respectful, authentic, and empowering way, and I know what the end result of such an endeavor looks like.
With all of that said, I want to state emphatically that I saw a lot of red flags with this movie. But I have a hard time holding it against the movie. I’ll explain further.
First of all, it bears mentioning that the relevant laws and regulations will vary wildly, depending on location. I primarily researched the strip clubs in Portland, which will be nothing like the strip clubs in New York City, Dallas, or Chicago, as a direct result of how clubs in the various cities are allowed to operate. Plus, the overall culture and clientele will be vastly different between cities, and even between clubs in the same city.
And this movie is set in Florida. It’s well-documented that they’re a different breed of crazy in Florida, and the movie was specifically engineered to play into that.
(NOTE: There’s one particular scene in which Stefani explains that the Tampa strip club is a “pasties and panties” joint, because performing fully nude in the state of Florida requires a totally different license. And Zola — the Detroit dancer — has overt problems with the adjustment. That was a neat touch. Nicely authentic.)
Secondly, the movie never shames any of the clients who pay Zola or Stefani for their services. For that matter, Zola and Stefani themselves are never shamed for the work that they do. Even Zola herself repeatedly tells Stefani “If you want to charge for sex, you do you. Make that money.”
Perhaps most importantly, Zola is explicitly clear in calling Stefani out when she does the wrong thing. Zola doesn’t mind that Stefani and X have a prostitution scheme on the side, but she’s rightfully pissed that Stefani tried dragging her into it without informed consent. Moreover, conflating stripping with prostitution is a common and legitimately harmful misconception, and it’s Zola who draws that line for the audience — Zola doesn’t mind dancing for money, but she won’t have sex for money.
And in spite of all that, it’s Zola who tells Stefani to recognize her own self-worth. Because Stefani doesn’t have the brains or the guts to set her whoring price, Zola has to be the one to triple the price tag. And even despite — or more likely, because — of the markup, Stefani still has clients coming in, and they’re better, safer, more respectful clients in the bargain. “Know what you’re worth, and don’t settle for anything less” — it’s a message that Stefani never really learns, but it’s a highly valuable feminist moral for the audience, implicitly and artfully made.
In summary, Stefani is a textbook example of how not to engage in stripping or sex work, and we’ve got Zola on hand to make that explicitly clear for the audience. Thus the film makes some legitimate statements about strippers and sex workers through a kind of “dos and don’ts” format. Nicely done.
With all of that said, the movie has a huge central problem in that it’s based on a Twitter thread. Even if it’s a massively long Twitter thread with nearly 150 entries, that’s still not enough material to support a feature-length story. And remember, they still had to throw in Stefani’s Reddit rebuttal to pad out the runtime. The film is only 86 minutes long, and at least five of those are the credits.
And for all of that, the film closes out prematurely, with a great many plot threads left unresolved. Then again, a central tenet of the film is that these are all awful people, we’re all better off parting ways with them as quickly as possible, and we’re told with literally the very first line of the movie that this is the story of how Zola fell out with them. So… mission accomplished, I guess?
I have a difficult time making heads or tails of Zola. The film has its positive traits: The cast is solid, the stylistic flourishes are dazzling, and the film has several feminist statements that I can respect. Yet the film is almost avant-garde in how trashy it is, and there’s a sense that the film’s valid artistic statements could’ve been made into something more powerful and coherent than they ultimately were. Also, the truncated narrative and the abbreviated runtime must be factored in.
Sorry, but an 80-minute movie isn’t worth a feature-length ticket price, certainly not at “initial run” prices. Still, it’s worth checking out on streaming or home video. A movie this uniquely bizarre simply must be seen at least once.