For those loudly prophesying the downfall of high art in the 21st century, @Zola should serve less as grist for the mill than as dynamite: a film based entirely on a twitter thread, quelle horreur! In 2015, Aziah Wells, a twitter user (is there an appropriate diminutive? Tweeter? Twit?) with the handle @Zola, began to post what Twitter historians would later dub ‘#TheStory’. Spread out over an epic 148 tweets, at a time when the social media octopus had no efficient way of reading posts in order, Wells laid out an ugly yet hilarious pulp-factual tale of a trip to Florida gone cartoonishly, horrifically, awry. The story went viral worldwide, inspiring a bit of a temporary cult: Zola costumes, Zola comics and about a million Zola-based online thinkpieces about what #TheStory said about anything and everything. Obviously in the hyperactive internet age, this only lasted for a couple of months but it was enough to get the ball rolling on #The Story’s Hollywood debut.
So (to paraphrase Oasis) what’s the story? @Zola is a hyperactive day-glo rollercoaster of a film, one that wears its zany off-the-wall style as a mask over the cold urban thriller lurking beneath the surface. Zola (newcomer Taylor Paige who plays her both as believably unflappable and out of her depth) is a young Hooters waitress (and occasional striper) possessed of a hard-won worldliness and a spikily sarcastic sense of humour. Whilst working at the restaurant she meets a young hyperactive blonde Stefanie (a feral Riley Keough, who channels Belle Du Jour by way of the Tasmanian Devil) and the pair instantly strike a connection. Swiftly she can’t seem to focus on her boyfriend or anything else but her phone waiting for the next text or call from her new friend. @Zola leaves it ambiguous if the attraction is sexual, but considering how the screen fumes and dilates with flaring neon as the two look into each other’s eyes, it definitely seems like it might be on the cards.
It is perhaps due to this half-acknowledged pull that when Stephanie proposes a trip to Florida, with the promise of multi-thousand payoff for a weekend’s worth of stripping, that Zola accepts at all. Two days is a somewhat short acquaintanceship for proposing cross-state sex work after all. However, once she accepts things begin to degenerate; it’s not just her and Stephanie in the car, it’s also Stephanie’s possibly bi-polar boyfriend (Nicholas Braun, the young cousin from Succession, who plays a similar character here but plays it well) and X, a hulking charmer behind the wheel (Coleman Domingo, terrifying) who no one sees fit to introduce. The atmosphere in the car begins to make Zola slightly uncomfortable as they drive through the night, a feeling that gets worse as they arrive at a broken-down motel. X insists the motel is only for the boyfriend, not for them and ushers them off into the Floridian night. Stripping ensues, but soon it becomes apparent that the apparently laid-back X has plans to up the ante to prostituting the pair and is disinclined to let Zola just walk away when she declines.
@Zola’s central strength is a wildly alternating tone, zinging from meat hook realism to belly laughs seemingly according to some internal metronome. The film spices this helter-skelter narrative by throwing all manner of visual flares up, from pulsating unnatural lights to the camera suddenly becoming handheld as the actors vogue their way through a song – director Janicza Bravo throws the directorial equivalent of the kitchen sink at the audience. At the beginning this scattergun approach to filmmaking feels worryingly exhausting, even for a svelte 87-minute running time. However, once the action reaches Florida, Bravo yanks this conceptual rug out from under the audience, shooting with a realism that feels all the starker for the previously cartoony atmosphere. The high energy bubbles of the film’s early going flatten into Lynchian shots of roads winding forever through the darkness, as Mica Levi’s (Jackie, Under The Skin) darkly ethereal score seethes. Whilst there are eruptions of unsettling violence, little moments of oblique threat provide the real lingering disquiet. An early scene that sees Zola attempting to leave X’s car only for him to shout at her in a suddenly present thick Nigerian accent sends real chills up the spine, even more so when you see him hoisting his avuncular American persona (and accent) back on afterwards like he’s reaffixing a carnival mask.
For all of the crazy events that unfurl across #TheStory, the darkness and human misery is distressingly common. There are no cackling serial killers taunting police officers here, just women entrapped for sexual and financial gain by vicious and stupid men. The comedy (and this is a funny movie make no mistake) and all the formal tricks in Bravo’s arsenal are flares and countermeasures to distract from an ice-cold narrative that has unfolded for innumerable women and will ensnare countless more. It’s for this reason that Stephanie’s villainous, or at least complicated role can be a little hard to swallow. From the beginning of the film, we are advised to “watch every move this bitch makes”, and it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable at the contempt heaped on an abused woman by screenwriters who have deemed her unworthy of victimhood.
@Zola fades out the story earlier than the original tweetstorm did (if you want to know who ended up in prison and who got out in time, you’ll have to look it up) but something about that open-endedness feels true to life. There is a dark side to the world that most of us only escape by money, our wits or luck. @Zola dresses up that nightmare in clown makeup and has it turn cartwheels for our amusement, but it’s only laughter in the dark.
Director: Janicza Bravo
Running Time: 87 Minutes
@Zola is available in cinemas or on Amazon Prime