‘Zola’ Ends up Exploiting Women Anyway

Sex work Twitter-thread film adaptation isn’t as entertaining or wild as it thinks

“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” So reads the first volley in a 148-tweet thread that spawned Janicza Bravo’s Zola, a messy and maddening black comedy about two strippers on a work trip gone wrong.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Zola may be the first twitter thread-to-movie adaptation, or at least the first that’s made a splash. Director Bravo, with co-screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), has translated it into a semi-coherent, good-looking movie. Shot in the same pastel, trash-glam palette as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, it’s another entry in the Floridasploitation genre. If only its subject matter was as daffy as it thinks it is.

ZOLA ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Janicza Bravo
Written by: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
Running time: 86 min

In case you aren’t familiar: in 2015, a woman named A’Ziah “Zola” King unleashed this thread about a jaw-dropping jaunt from hell. She thought her new friend, Jessica, had invited her to dance at a club, but ended up in a hotel room turning tricks along with the other woman, who’d lured her there knowingly. Their driver turned out to be Jessica’s pimp, and the woman’s boyfriend, also along for the ride, was an emotional mess. Guns eventually entered the mix. It was a bad scene.

It was also compulsively readable, if not entirely plausible, and it made Zola a viral star. At some point, Hollywood slated James Franco to direct a film version of what’s now known as #TheStory, and I think we can all feel some relief that didn’t happen. Instead, they attached Bravo to direct, stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough signed on, and the movie took on the promise of being a righteous, feminist big-screen version of Zola’s story.

Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) does bemused quite effectively as Zola, a diner waitress chatted up by a customer named Stefani (Riley Keough, whose character had a different name in the Twitter thread). Stefani opens classily with a compliment about Zola’s apple-like titties. They bond over being exotic dancers, with Bravo subtitling their salty banter, cutely, along the lines of “I see you”/”I feel seen.” The director throws in freeze frames, split screens, and tweet sound effects throughout to underline the source material. This makes sense, I guess, but it also feels like a choice that will almost instantly calcify this in amber as a period piece, something for the olds and their retro social media platforms.

Soon, Stefani’s texting Zola an invite to come down to Florida to perform at a club. It seems a little early in the friendship, but what the hell: Zola is up for making some money. She doesn’t think her boyfriend will go for it, though, so she has to “fuck [him] calm,” the first of the film’s many depictions of transactional sex. It was also the first time I began to lose my faith in Zola (the movie, that is) being the good time that was hyped.

It becomes quickly apparent that Stefani’s “roommate” (Colman Domingo), here called X, is bad news, and that her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, Cousin Greg of Succession) is the group’s oblivious weak link. While Stefani and Zola are out dancing, he’s way too friendly to a sketchy motel denizen named Dion (Jason Mitchell) who will later show up to take Stefani hostage for a badly thought-out ransom ploy. In the intervening hours, Zola will staunchly refuse to take part in prostitution, but she will help Stefani make more money doing it, despite being understandably pissed at being roped in, because X is only charging $150 and “pussy is worth thousands.” True!

There’s also a very graphic and slightly gnarly montage of clients’ dicks, which feels like one of the most honest things about this movie. It’s also refreshing in its total lack of debauchery: There are no drugs or alcohol fueling this story, and the sex, as before, is eye-openingly joyless. Keough does an excellent job of maintaining Stefani’s game face, during an epic parade of brief and depressing paid trysts, while clearly telegraphing that she’s somewhere else. Somewhere nicer, hopefully.

At one point, Bravo turns the narrative over to Stefani, who protests that we have it all backwards and Zola is the one who’s the hot mess who got them into tricking. (This is apparently based on a Reddit post authored by Jessica.) But mostly we stick with Zola, who rides out this horror show with as little involvement as possible while trying to keep her disaster of a friend from getting ripped off or killed. It’s a testament to the wherewithal of the real Zola, who turned a harrowing situation into a good yarn. Yay for keeping your head on straight and not taking any shit, but I just couldn’t muster up a lot of enjoyment for any of this.

I hate feminist purity tests. I was sad when Promising Young Woman stirred up a backlash so quickly after it came out, for not being the right kind of rape revenge movie. There are a million different ways to make films about women having agency, and it’s OK for some of those plots to be morally flawed. They can still be entertaining! And well made! And have characters we can root for even as they’re doing dubious things!

But Zola still bummed me out. I just couldn’t get on board with the wacky, how-wild-is-this vibe. At its core, it’s about a lot of really shitty things happening to two young women, mostly thanks to some shitty men, and even if one of the women is ultimately victorious in claiming the narrative, and apparently making a fair amount of money off it, sex trafficking still isn’t funny. X slapping Stefani around and telling her her tits belong to him isn’t funny. Neither is making sex workers a punchline, which is about as retro as it gets.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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