If nothing else, “Zola” represents the first time in history a movie can be described as being based on a 148-Tweet Twitter thread.
The story of two strippers on a topsy-turvy road trip to Florida, “Zola,” which opens June 30, feels like an ultra-modern telling of an old pulp tale.
In 2015, Aziah “Zola” Wells King began her saga with: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this b—-h here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” The tweet is punctuated with laughing and crying emojis, and includes photos of King herself and the b—-h in question, Jessica.
The original tweets appear to have been deleted from her Twitter account, but the thread is linked in a Rolling Stone article, which told the story behind the story, and became part of the basis for the movie.
The story amazingly springs to life in the thread, which is conversational, funny, bold and full of foul language, typos and grammar and punctuation issues. It certainly sounds like a movie plot.
The movie actually tones down a few things from the thread; seemingly a choice by filmmakers to empower its women characters, rather than allow them to be victims of circumstance.
Taylour Paige (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) plays Zola as pretty and quiet, but savvy and streetwise. Riley Keough (“American Honey,” “Logan Lucky”) is Stefani (changed from Jessica), the unpredictable, manipulative wild child.
Director and co-writer Janicza Bravo (who also made the weird, dark comedy “Lemon”) creates lux, dreamy spaces. Clubs and hotel rooms somehow are both realistically seedy and optimistically glitzy.
Also along on the road trip are Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) — changed from Jarrett in the original — and X (Colman Domingo) — changed from Z — who, it turns out, is Stefani’s pimp, who slips into a kind of Caribbean accent when enraged.
Derrek is dropped off at a low-rent, seedy hotel with the group’s bags, and the other three head to a nicer hotel to get dressed for the night. After some uneventful dancing, Stefani announces she is going to switch jobs, from stripper to prostitute.
Zola doesn’t do that, so she acts as an unofficial greeter, who eventually becomes fed up and helps Stefani raise her prices.
Meanwhile, tall, gawky doofus Derrek gets the entire crew in trouble by talking to the wrong guy. It leads to, among other things, Stefani being kidnapped.
Bravo appropriately adds Zola’s narration, including enticing details about how long before she hears one person speak for the first time, and noting exact points when the story takes another weird turn. Each chapter is accompanied by the familiar bird-like “tweet” sound.
The movie also provides Stefani/Jessica’s alternate version of events, which are treated as comical exaggerations.
Bravo’s other strange touches include the sounds of two boys rhythmically dribbling a basketball as the travelers arrive at their hotel. The boys are on a walkway above; and their actions appear to be looped, like a repeating GIF, the bouncing noise becoming more and more unsettling.
Unexpected camera placement and odd editing choices — with cuts that seem to come just before or after a natural beat — also make “Zola” feel off-kilter.
But Paige’s performance as Zola keeps things grounded. Her absolute conviction in the story as gospel truth and her own incredulous reactions to the crazier parts make her believable.
So what is “Zola” about? Perhaps it’s about women characters that are empowered because they control their own story. Yet by passing Zola’s story on to Bravo’s movie, it changed again. It’s now the director and co-writer’s story; and as respectful as she tries to be, it’s a fact that change.
Despite its levels of Tarantino-style meta-ness, “Zola” has a once-removed feel from the original tweets, and it’s certainly less crazy.
On the other hand, adaptations often are unfairly compared to source material. Maybe “Zola” can be viewed as an extension of the lore of the tweets, not a separate entity. In other words, the story may tumble from variation to variation, but it goes on.
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
Written by: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris, based on an article by David Kushner, and on a story by Aziah Wells King
Directed by: Janicza Bravo
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes