Zola is a true story about strippers & pimps, adapted from a Twitter thread

Despite the inherently cinematic material, Janicza Bravo’s film is a case study in the limits of adaptation.

Janicza Bravo’s Zola is not the first piece of media adapted from a Twitter sensation, but it is perhaps the first piece of media adapted from a Twitter sensation wherein the sensation’s inherent cinematic qualities were being touted as the situation unfolded. In 2015, exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King outlined, in a herculean 148-tweet thread, an insane story of how she had met a fellow dancer who had roped her into a scheme to go dance in Florida that sounded simple but eventually wound up becoming an ordeal involving gun-toting pimps and hotel-room ripoffs. In the purest oral tradition, King’s thread unfolded in a stream-of-consciousness manner but also showed a real knack for dramatic construction. The reason why so many people were bowled over by King’s story was not so much that it was a dramatically rich premise (though it was) but that she told it as if it were a movie.

There is, however, an absolute disconnect between real-life stories that sound like movies and making movies out of cinematic real-life stories. It is, in fact, insane that all of this happened to Zola in real life. It is somewhat less insane when transposed into a medium that has been absolutely saturated with stories of eccentric crime and larger-than-life twists and turns. All this to say that while Zola’s original thread has an inherent cinematic quality and is a near-perfect transposition of oral tradition to the written medium, it loses something in its translation to feature film.

Zola (Taylour Paige) is a waitress and sometime pole dancer who meets a fellow dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough) when the latter comes in for a meal. The two immediately strike up a friendship based mainly around Stefani’s insistence that they should work together. Their first day of dancing goes pretty well, well enough for Zola to accept Stefani’s proposition that they head down to Florida for a quick buck with a few dancing gigs. Zola accepts only to find herself in the middle of a bizarre situation, caught between Stefani, her “roommate” X (Colman Domingo) and her wimpy, ineffectual boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun). It soon becomes clear that X is Stefani’s pimp and that the Florida trip is not an in-and-out gig as originally planned.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo

Divorced from the immediacy of King’s retelling (the screenplay, by Bravo and playwright Jeremy O. Harris, does repurpose much of it as dialogue), Zola feels less like a surreal fever dream and more like a traditional silver-screen crime comedy, pitched somewhere between classic Elmore Leonard, The Florida Project and Spring Breakers. Let it be said that everyone is bringing their A-game here, from newcomer Paige to Keough, bringing forth heretofore unimaginable levels of Grand Guignol ratchetness. The cast is perfectly suited to the material, and Bravo has also adapted her style (which tended towards brittle, awkward anti-comedy in her previous works) to the demands of the story. Everything about Zola points to a perfect adaptation of its original form… except for the very idea of an adaptation of Zola. 

Look at it this way: When someone tells you a story about what a hassle it was getting off their plane and finding a rental car, you are reasonably hooked by their troubles. Your empathy makes it so that you, at the very least, relate to their plight, even if haggling with the rental car booth worker is not exactly the stuff of high drama. Watching a movie of that very event, on the other hand, would hold very limited appeal. The filmed version of Zola is nowhere near like a movie of manoeuvring the rental car booth at the airport, mind you, but it outlines how — in movie terms, at least — Zola’s story is kind of banal. The ultimate way of telling Zola’s story is the way she told it, and adapting it to the silver screen robs it of part of its immediacy.

In that sense, I don’t think there’s that much room for improvement in this particular adaptation. It’s both narratively faithful and a good transposition of the particular tone of the original story, but movies cannot have the conversational immediacy of something like the original thread. One of the great narrative twists of the original story is the surprise third-act resurgence of a minor character from the first act — the kind of thing that is absolutely mindblowing in real life but absolutely banal in narrative storytelling. Taken solely as a Southern-fried trash culture safari in the Spring Breakers mould, Zola is frequently quite entertaining; as a case study in why not every cinematic story automatically makes for great cinema, it’s endlessly fascinating. ■ 

Zola opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, June 30. Watch the trailer here:

Zola starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, directed by Janicza Bravo

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