“Zola” Is A Love Letter To Everyone That Grew Up Online

When an account by the name of @Zolarmoon tweeted “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” the internet lost its collective mind. The thread, which went viral in a matter of hours, garnered attention from some of Hollywood’s elite’s. Luckily, director Janicza Bravo got it.

The 148-tweet saga detailed the story of a young woman named Zola (Taylour Page) who meets a white girl named Stefani (played by Riley Keough) in a Hooters. Stefani speaks in African American Vernacular English and chews a lot of gum, two details that help Keough create one very uniquely obnoxious character.

The two bond over their shared love for the internet and Stefani soon invites Zola to go on a “hoe trip” (stripper trip) to Florida to dance in a Tampa club. When things go south—namely, when Stefani begins turning tricks by way of her pimp, who goes by X (Colman Domingo), Zola begins to realize she’s been tricked into becoming an accomplice.

Naturally, the trip only gets more dramatic as X becomes violent while Stefani’s clients become more and more questionable. Meanwhile Stefani’s boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), who also went on the trip, realizes that Stefani has been getting paid for sex—likely for awhile, as X supports her lifestyle. Derek’s character arc eventually comes to a climax toward the end of the story as he threatens to kill himself if Stefani doesn’t leave Florida with him immediately. In the film version of the story, it plays out in exactly the same way.

In between the high-stakes adventure throughout Florida, Zola provides a lighthearted and hilarious picture of an objectively terrifying situation that would have likely been portrayed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of sex work had it been picked up by a Hollywood giant. Where Bravo’s version of the story shines is in its comedy, which plays off of meme and social media culture, the retelling of the story in the wrong way would have exploited Zola’s story as just another surface-level tale of sex work gone wrong.

The internet and social media are the very nature and crux of the film, which uses the language of the internet (slang terms like “period” are used frequently) to tell its story, often using closed captioning to translate the slang into grammatically correct American English.

In one scene, Stefani tells her side of the story in the same language used in the Reddit post by the real-life Stefani—but in film-Stefani’s voice and dialect (which Keough delivers flawlessly). The obvious change in narrative shows the different ways of communicating on social media, further demonstrating the real-life Zola’s penchant for retelling online while bringing a new level of comedy to the film without using the go-to strategy of simply adding pop-up images of the Tweets and social media posts.

A quick overhead shot of Page and Keough using separate bathroom stalls in a public toilet shows a distinctive comparison between their urine—Zola is healthy and hygienic, where Stefani’s discolored urine (and lack of toilet paper) sends a distinct, yet subtle message: yes, Stefani is messy, but “Zola” is a love letter to the social media age, where oversharing often exposes people’s worst habits. The shot reminds me of this meme that surfaced in 2019 when thousands of white people confessed on Twitter that they skip washing their legs in the shower, sending Twitter into a tailspin.

For an A24 film, “Zola” does not venture far from the visual aesthetic you would expect. Hazy shots of neon glittering against a room filled with mirrors opens the film (I, who may as well be a bird, am enchanted by visually stunning imagery filled with lights and glitter), while Page and Keough’s seemingly endless wardrobe changes bring a new level of depth to their respective characters—right down to their manicures and cell phone cases.

Keough, who breathes life into a character that had no defining presence in Zola’s Twitter thread, brings personality and hilarity to a character that could have easily been glazed over in order to emphasize Zola’s narrative. “Zola” was clearly a labor of love that came from a group of people that grew up and currently spend their time online.

Dozens of filmmakers, actors, and writers have tried and failed to nail the culture of the internet on film to no avail, but Zola does so with an effortlessness that can only be executed by a group of people that not only grew up on the internet, but approached filmmaking with the same “don’t take it too seriously” sense of humor that they do their Twitter accounts.

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Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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