A film? Based on tweets posted by a stripper over five years ago? Heavens to Betsy, is there no end to social media polluting all of our entertainment? Must Twitter’s nasty reach extend to cinematic story telling? And who would dare give credence to a stripper?
Writer/director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, 2017), and no one else could pull it off. Her direction and her script, co-written with award winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris, based on the tweets by A’Ziah “Zora” King (who served as an executive producer of the film) give credence to Zola. And it shows the viewer the terrifying and ignored reality of human trafficking while preserving King’s narrative voice.
It starts in a common way. Zola (Taylour Paige) gets invited on a weekend dancing trip to Florida by her new friend, Stefani, played with grating tawdriness and desperation by Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience, 2016 – Present). They met when Zola waited on her at an unnamed restaurant. They followed each other on social media, as we do. They hung out a few times, as we do. They realized that they both danced (stripped) occasionally. And the invitation seemed legit and safe — a weekend away by the ocean with Stefani, Stefani’s boyfriend and their roommate, and some profit thrown in. It’s our twenty-first century normal, connecting with people online, becoming friends and meeting up in “the real world,” using social media to evaluate someone as trustworthy. We are all digital natives now.
Bravo and Harris sustain King’s narrative voice by peppering tweets, verbatim, throughout the film, accompanied by the default tweet alert. To deepen the original narrative, written afterwards and with the humor of, “I can’t believe this happened,” it’s balanced with the slow burn realization of danger and deceit.. Zola begins to realize something is up when they arrive in Tampa at a cheap motel. Bravo masterfully creates tension by the use of synthesizer beats that mirror two boys bouncing a basketball. And the tone changes from a fun road trip to “how do I get out of here?” The trauma is real.
Paige’s Zola has no poker face. She’s an observer and an active agent at the same time, often realizing the safest thing to do is go along until an opportunity presents itself and she can leave. We see this all played out on her face and through the blocking. She’s to the side of the action, watching, while the others — Stefani, the foolhardy boyfriend Derrick (Nicholas Braun), and the violent, seedy pimp X (Colman Domingo) — argue and plan.
The film leaves the viewer rattled, a bit unsettled, realizing that while there were some laughs, the trauma and danger of sex trafficking is very real and insiduous. It shows up as banal as an invitation to the beach. And once you’re deep in it, like Stefani, you’ll do anything to stay alive. Even sell out a new friend.
Stop the pearl clutching. And go see Zola.