The salacious road trip movie “Zola” is the first mainstream movie based on a tweetstorm, and while you might think that’s awfully thin source material, let’s not forget we’ve seen films based on video game apps such as “Angry Birds,” the children’s trading card series “The Garbage Pail Kids,” the Pepsi commercials featuring “Uncle Drew” and the LEGO toy sets — not to mention the $4.5 billion “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, which was inspired by a theme park attraction.
Compared to some of that stuff, a succession of 148 tweets is practically literature.
Inspired by a series of tweets from 2015 by Detroit-based Hooters waitress and exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King and a subsequent Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, “Zola” has been fleshed out into a raunchy, violent, harrowing road-trip adventure that plays like “Spring Breakers” meets “Hustlers” with a little of “The Florida Project.” Director Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris have expanded on and, in some cases, fictionalized the original series of tweets (which may or may not have been embellishments of true-life adventures in the first place). The result is a raw and sometimes chilling and often darkly funny adventure filled with just enough nods to social media, e.g., we sometimes hear the familiar Twitter sound effect when something is posted.
Taylour Paige is a grounded presence as Zola, our tour guide throughout this madcap story (with the exception of one late sequence in which the POV abruptly shifts, and we hear a completely different version of events).
Zola is a waitress at a chain restaurant who moonlights as a stripper and seems in control of her life and her occupations — until the moment she meets Riley Keough’s Stefani, a motor-mouthed blonde who sounds like one of those trash-talking guests on a tabloid TV show. Stefani quickly befriends Zola and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: They’ll take a road trip to sunny Florida and earn a small fortune dancing at some high-end strip club over the course of a weekend. Zola jumps at the offer, no questions asked. But not long after she’s in the car with Stefani, a mysterious and clearly dangerous man who will come to be known as X (Colman Domingo) and Stefani’s dimwitted, cuckolded boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun from “Succession”), she realizes SHE should have asked questions.
X is driving a high-end Mercedes SUV, but he checks the group into a seedy motel in Tampa. It’s quickly established the women aren’t really here to dance all weekend; it’s X’s intention to pimp them out. Stefani knew about this, but Zola didn’t — and when she tries to leave, X takes out his gun and makes it known that’s not an option. Zola feels double-crossed but she still looks out for Stefani, urging her to up her rates to $500 per encounter, which leads to a startling sequence in which trick after trick visits Stefani, undressing and revealing a wide array of genitalia before they get down to business.
“Zola” is a stark reminder of the brutality and ugliness of the sex trafficking industry; Domingo is chillingly effective as a monster who casually pimps out women as if he’s hawking cigarettes. Director Bravo and her cinematographer Ari Wegner infuse the film with a gritty, docudrama style that fits the material, and Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are outstanding as a couple of hustlers in over their heads.
I’m guessing this won’t be the last movie based on a series of Tweets. There’s a lot of, um, stuff, going down out there in the Twitterverse.