Some stories seem too good to be true. That was certainly the case on October 27, 2015, when a young black woman named Aziah King started tweeting about a crazy experience she claimed to have had with three virtual strangers: a white woman she recently befriended, her boyfriend and a pimp. Quickly going viral, the thread, which became known as #TheStory, had a little bit of everything: sex, violence, prostitution, money, suicide attempts, crime. A few weeks later when Rolling Stone’s David Kushner interviewed King to determine what was real and what was exaggerated, he succinctly summarized the story’s magnetic pull: “It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj.”
That description also fits Zola, the film based on King’s harrowing odyssey from Detroit to Tampa. Premiering today at Sundance, the movie feels like something that would have sprung from the mind of Spring Breakers mastermind Harmony Korine. (In fact, that surreal crime saga’s star, James Franco, was initially going to direct Zola before he left the project over accusations of sexual misconduct.) Zola is unfocused and unpredictable — it’s always brandishing its truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bona fides — and it doesn’t end up being about much of anything. But, as directed by up-and-comer Janicza Bravo (Lemon), the film also swirls with a bratty energy that has its kicks. It’s a movie about sex workers that neither moralizes nor celebrates the trade — it just zooms from one feverish scene to the next.
Zola stars Taylour Paige as Zola, the story’s main character and narrator. Zola is working as a waitress when she locks eyes on Stefani (Riley Keough), a trashy customer who bonds with Zola over a shared love for pole dancing. The two become instant BFFs, and not soon after Stefani is inviting her on a road trip to Florida to make big money dancing. Zola is initially reluctant, but Stefani convinces her — even though they’ll be driving with Stefani’s dopey boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and a mysterious individual who goes by X (Colman Domingo). Along the way, Zola sometimes relates through voiceover what we need to know or recounts memories she had of the trip.
In case you’re not familiar with #TheStory, I don’t want to reveal exactly what happens in Tampa over this eventful weekend, but pretty quickly it becomes clear that pole-dancing isn’t in these young ladies’ future — and that X will be calling the shots. Regardless of whether certain incidents are exaggerated or misrepresented, Zola explodes with possibility, as if anything could happen.
When King spoke to Rolling Stone, she indicated that she wanted her viral moment to educate readers about the horrors of sex trafficking. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex-trafficking story want to be a part of it because it was entertaining,” she told Kushner, later adding, “It’s common, and it happens. It could happen to anyone.”
And while that’s a laudable sentiment, Zola by comparison doesn’t seem particularly burdened by a need to warn people about a global crisis. Much like Spring Breakers and Pulp Fiction, Bravo’s film savors the squalor that it unearths, offering an amoral viewpoint on the frightening ordeal that Zola endures. From the start, where we see Paige confidently showing off her curvy body and acrobatic moves on a stripper pole, Zola is frank in its depiction of sexuality. Once this collection of mismatched characters makes its way to Tampa, certain sex acts occur, but Bravo flips the script a little, presenting Zola and Stefani as women controlling their own bodies and destinies. The movie isn’t so much a cautionary tale as it is a deep dive into the invisible human ecosystems that rarely get depicted in mainstream Hollywood films. These women will meet some strange and dangerous men, but rarely anyone they can’t handle.
It’s not just the fact that Zola is adapted from a tweet thread that marks this as a movie of the moment. Bravo references modern technology and niche trends throughout the film. We hear cellphone notifications ringing at random times. When a character tries to drown out the talking around her, she physically “mutes” the scene as if she’s adjusting the volume on her laptop. I’m pretty sure a CarStuckGirls video (or at least a homage) is playing in the background at one point. And Stefani even hijacks the narrative for a little while, telling us her version of the events in the style of a Reddit testimonial.
Alongside that cutting-edge technology, there’s a comparable rethinking of cultural norms. Like other movies about rebellious young people — whether it’s Breathless or Easy Rider — there’s a sense that these protagonists operate within their own code of ethics. Not only is sex work part of Zola’s nonjudgmental landscape, so too is murder and kidnapping. The storytelling can be flat, and Bravo’s stylishness overwhelms the substance, but the movie is electrified by its exuberance to tell this bizarre tale in its own fashion.
Not that Zola doesn’t have a conscience. Zola is determined to get free of these twisted individuals she’s now trapped with, and her no-nonsense attitude may just get her out of this alive. Almost by design, though, Zola doesn’t want you to cozy up to any of the characters. They’ve all been left behind by society, and each of them is angry about it, willing to do just about anything to keep their head above water. A better film would have given us the emotional stakes of that desperation, allowing us to see how this wild ride actually speaks to modern anxieties about a shrinking economy and — especially for women — the fear of being exploited or assaulted. Instead, Zola chooses to skim the surface, giving us sleaze and shock, which is engaging enough but also limiting.
Just as with King’s tweets, Zola is almost too crazy to be believed. But like so much of what we stumble upon on social media, the movie gives us a quick blast of sensation without asking us to ponder the actual people who were involved. As a result, Zola is a fascinatingly empty entertainment — a brief look at individuals who mean nothing to us except for how they can help us pass the time for 90 minutes. In an age of going viral, we don’t want to understand others’ lives — we just want to glom off their experiences and then never give them another thought as we keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. That realization of our worst tendencies is the darkest insight in this otherwise superficial crime drama.