Zola is a whirlwind of sex, violence and deceit – review

Zola is a whirlwind of sex, violence and deceit – review
This bold adaptation of a viral Twitter story proves that social media has wrecked the boundaries between fact and fiction

Dir: Janicza Bravo. Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Colman Domingo. 18, 90 mins.

Zola is about as modern as film-making gets. It takes its inspiration from a series of tweets posted by Detroit-based exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015, now considered a masterclass in digital storytelling. King opened with a tantalising promise: “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

And, in the next 147 tweets, she delivered pure chaos. A trip to Florida with a woman named Jessica she’d barely met – on the promise of making some extra cash stripping in a few Tampa clubs – unravelled into a full-blown carnival of sex, violence, deceit and mortifying incompetence. King was pithy, observant; she knew how to build characters from the simplest of details. Later, she admitted to inventing several crucial plot points. It never mattered much. Social media has wrecked the boundaries between fact and fiction – all that matters now is the story.

Film-maker Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O Harris have now used those same tweets to create their own whirlwind of a film. Bold and intricate in its construction, it possesses the same consciously offhand manner of someone typing in 140-character chunks. Its soundtrack not only consists of Mica Levi’s haunting melodies, but also a Greek chorus of chirping Twitter notifications. The film instantly shakes off the story’s grip on reality by playing around with the names – Zola is only ever Zola (Taylour Paige), Jessica is now Stefani (Riley Keough). Her roommate who turns out to be much more than a roommate is no longer Z, but X (Colman Domingo), while her boyfriend Jarrett becomes Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun).

Bravo seems well-versed in the new, bifurcated state of being brought on by social media – one where life isn’t just something to be experienced, but to be simultaneously observed so that it can later be regurgitated for a hungry, ever-present audience. Zola will direct punchlines into the camera (“They start f***ing. It was gross”) like an arrow meeting its bullseye. She’ll languidly admire herself in a wall of mirrors, asking herself, “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?”

But the other Zola – the more truthful, vulnerable one – is occasionally glimpsed in the corner of a frame, her arms spread across her body as a shield. At one point, she seems to completely disassociate, the screen replaced with rainbow-hued electric sparks, after things reach the point of simply becoming too “real”. These challenges to Zola’s otherwise carefully manicured artifice simply wouldn’t work without the microscopic precision of Paige’s performance, where monologues are spoken through the arch of an eyebrow or a single, toneless response of “word”.

Keough’s turn, meanwhile, is a feat of both bravado and care – there’s a laudable shrewdness in how she’s reinvested her status as Elvis’s granddaughter into such a fascinating portrait of blithe white privilege as Stefani, just as she did in 2017’s American Honey. Domingo brings both charm and terror; Braun is the ideal wet noodle. All of these characters feel both unbelievable and unnervingly recognisable, even as they act out against a backdrop of penis montages and singalongs to Migos’s “Hannah Montana”. But, as Zola argues, that’s where all the best stories lie.

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