Even when they have a good story at heart, adaptations can be hit and miss, no matter the genre. True stories can be manipulated and changed to have a more cinematic edge, but Zola is a whole other hybrid. This is where adaptations and true stories collide in a brightly coloured, neon mess. It’s a thrill ride that doesn’t include a mass load of action sequences. Instead, just like Zola herself says, it is kind of long but full of suspense.
After meeting one day at work, waitress and part-time stripper Zola (Taylour Paige) is befriended by Stefani (Riley Keough) through a shared love of stripping and dancing. At first, it seems like a fun friendship, especially when Stefani invites Zola to Florida with her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun)and roommate X (Colman Domingo), promising her they can make money dancing at a club she knows to be lucrative. However, it very quickly becomes obvious that something else is going on, especially when X begins crossing the line, asking how much money the girls made at the club. This is when the trip goes from bad to a whole lot worse than Zola could have ever imagined.
Zola is based on a notorious Twitter thread that circled the internet back in 2015. The efforts made to stay true to the real-life Aziah “Zola” King’s outrageous tweets gives the film its edge. Although the film does feel like a novelty at times, slipping between being a black comedy to an intense thriller within seconds, it eventually finds its pace. It becomes an absolute thrill ride with dreamy friendship sequences and nightmare scenarios. This is thanks to the storytelling and the excellent casting. Director Janicza Bravo, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy O. Harris, effortlessly leads us from meet-cute to whirlwind disaster trip to Florida, matching the pace at which Aziah “Zola” King tweeted the entire original story. The film is also accompanied by a brilliantly disorientating soundtrack with a mixture of beats, instrumental and oh-so-familiar phone notification sounds that follow our characters throughout the story. Everything in the film is pieced carefully together, without a nipple pastie out of place.
The excellent casting of the real-life characters is a major reason why this film works so well. Colman Domingo as the menacing ‘X’ and Nicholas Braun as the clueless Derrick are perfectly cast, but it’s Riley Keough as Stefani and Taylour Paige as Zola that really make an impact in every scene they’re in. The chemistry and ease these actors have with one another is exhilarating, even when Zola screams in Stefani’s face that her brain is ‘broke’.
The thin line between what is real what has is fiction is blurred throughout the entire film, and it might be unclear what is true and what is false; after all, this is told from the perspective of Zola only – apart from a very comedic scene in which Stefani ‘sets the record straight. In addition, the film includes different storytelling devices such as breaking the fourth wall and tactical voiceover narration. Bravo cleverly places these moments together, creating dark humour and suspense. Zola delivers on the hype that has proceeded it and doesn’t stop for one second to think about the consequences.
Zola is released in UK cinemas on August 6th.