Zola

Zola ★★★

“Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this b!tch here fell out?! It's kinda long but full of suspense.”

Zola quotes the opening line of a viral tweet thread like it’s dropping “it was the best of times…” or “call me Ishmael” or any other opening line from a classic of western literature. This is the central joke of Zola, a cinematic adaptation of the famous 140-plus tweet thread into a major motion picture.

Much will be made of Zola’s nods towards modern “extremely online” culture, with the use of tweeting sound effects and cameraphone shots that display picture-in-picture. At one point, Zola excuses herself from a conversation by turning the volume down like on a phone. The time and date stamps aren’t shown at the bottom of the screen or on black title cards, but instead at the top centre of establishing shots like on the lock screen of a phone. It’s all very hip and modern.

However, the most fascinating aspect of Zola is its collapse of this very modern sensibility with a much more traditional styling. The pastel colour schemes make some of the Florida hotels look like old-fashioned movie sets. The soundtrack occasionally takes cues from fantastical musicals. The film is shot in such a way that it glistens like the naturalistic movies of the seventies. At several points, Zola stands in front of a set of mirrors like she’s starring in The Circus or The Lady from Shanghai.

This juxtaposition of old and new media sits at the heart of Zola. Janicza Bravo edits text conversations like she’s cutting together classic shot-reverse-shot conversations. The title card includes both the twitter-at and the classic Roman numeral copyright detail. There’s something fascinating in this fusion of forms, suggesting an attempt to hybridise a certain kind of classical filmmaking with a decidedly (and even aggressively) modern sensibility. This is the most interesting aspect of the film, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Narratively, Zola is surprisingly inert. The twists and turns of the source Twitter thread don’t quite make for satisfying or engaging drama. Zola introduces itself as a story that is “kinda long but full of suspense”, and both of those descriptors feel disingenuous. The movie clocks in neatly at under ninety minutes, and the formless narrative about the title character becoming embroiled in prostitution and chaos in Florida doesn’t feel too far removed from the story mechanics of most modern American indies. Indeed, Zola is at its strongest when it isn’t especially concerned with the story that it’s telling, but making room for the sorts of character touches that simply can’t fit in a Twitter thread.

Still, Zola at least has Riley Keough saying, “I f&!k with Jesus.” So there’s that going for it.