Movie Review: Zola

A wildly entertaining weekend from hell.

I remember back in 2016, when The Angry Birds Movie came out, I thought, “A film based on an app? It’s been nice knowing you, western civilization, you had a nice run.”

So when I tell you that Zola, the new A24 film directed by Janicza Bravo, is based on a viral tweet thread, please know that I understand your concern. Also know that it’s unwarranted. The film is, in a word, awesome—a hilarious, livewire, raunchy sex odyssey that feels both utterly of the moment and strangely timeless.

The thread in question, as well as the film, starts with the now infamous quote: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?????”

If you’ve ever read the 148-tweet long thread—and I recommend that you do after you see the film—you’ll see why someone felt compelled to turn it into a movie. It reads like a movie script—full of danger, improbable twists and turns, and larger-than-life characters. Shout out to A’Ziah King, who gets a writing credit (“Based on tweets by”) along with Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris. She’s a natural-born storyteller.

Our hero is Zola (Taylour Paige), the character based on A’Ziah. She’s working at a Hooters type restaurant one night when she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), who promptly compliments her on her “titties.” They hit it off famously, speaking in the same hip-hop-infused patois, exchanging complaints about the uselessness of men, and cheerfully calling each other bitch. (It should be noted that Zola is Black, whereas Stefani merely wants to be Black.)

Stefani says that she’s going to make thousands dancing at a club in Tampa, does Zola want to come? Reluctantly—she doesn’t even know this bitch!—she agrees. The next day, Stefani picks her up with her goofy, stretched out, endearingly dumb boyfriend Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate” X (Colman Domingo), a slick and vaguely menacing looking guy who drives a Mercedes jeep.

“He just takes care of me,” Stefani explains about X. And Zola instantly knows what that means. “Stripper language for pimp,” she tells us.

When I say Zola “tells us,” I mean that literally—Zola is filled with fourth-wall-breaking narration, freeze frames, split screens, and comically framed images. It might be gimmicky in the hands of a less confident director, but Bravo is employing this flashy style to mimic the chaotic energy of the tweet thread—and Zola’s night. The film has the absurdist descent-into-hell feel of a Safdie brothers film mixed with the sun-bleached, seedy humanism of the films of Sean Baker.

After she finds out that X is a pimp, things go downhill for Zola fast. Stefani’s plan all along was to recruit Zola for sex work, something Zola is adamantly opposed to. Still, she finds herself in a hotel room where Stefani—dressed in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform and sucking on a lollipop—turns multiple tricks. This is filmed as one of the more profane and hilarious (albeit sad) montages you’ll ever see, as all manner of isolated male body parts (legs, flabby torsos . . . um, other parts) are presented in rapid succession.

Danger will come later in the form of a local gangster (Jason Mitchell) whom Derrek had innocently befriended (“This isn’t you,” Derrek says sadly, when the gangster pulls a gun on them) and when X’s hot temper is revealed. There’s also X’s fiancée, a fiercely loyal, Amazonian hulk of a woman who will do anything to protect her man and seems to take sadistic pleasure in the night’s various violent escalations.

So yes, a weekend from hell—but a wildly entertaining one, made all the more enjoyable by Zola’s deadpan incredulity. I should note that the acting here is spot on. Paige makes for a great tour guide. She’s scared, she’s fed up, but she’s nobody’s victim. Domingo gives X a strange personality quirk that comes directly from the Twitter thread—every time he’s angry, a thick African accent emerges out of nowhere. It’s hilarious—but he’s frightening, too. Braun is doing that clueless, sheepish thing he does so well (in an ongoing bit, he dreams of being a TikTok star). But the real standout is Keough, with her hyper-sexualized baby talk and anarchic energy. The film is a ride—both in the literal and metaphorical sense. I never wanted to get off.