‘Zola’ Sundance Movie Review: The World’s First Twitter Movie

In the modern era, anything can become the inspiration for a movie. A podcast led Kevin Smith to make Tusk. Now a twitter thread inspired the film Zola, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release Zola but you can get a preview in this review. 

Twitter inspired film Zola: Riley Keough and Taylour Paige
L-R: Riley Keough and Taylour Paige | Anna Kooris/Sundance Institute

A’Ziah King, a.k.a. @_zolarmoon tweeted her story of a trip to Florida with a fellow dancer on October 27, 2015. The tweets are gone, although some have reposted the transcript online, but they went viral enough that David Kushner wrote an article in Rolling Stone. The movie puts viewers inside the story. 

‘Zola’ is ‘the story about why me & this b*tch here fell out’

So begins the Twitter thread by King and the narration by Zola (Taylour Paige). Zola is a waitress and a dancer. While serving Stefani (Riley Keough) and Derrek (Nicholas Braun) dinner, Zola and Stefani hit it off. They even dance together. Paige in particular shows off some impressive pole moves.

Zola cast
(L-R) Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige, and Colman Domingo | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

When Stefani invites Zola to Florida with her, it’s supposed to just be to dance at the beach clubs. It turns out Stefani placed an add in Backpage and expects Zola to perform sex work for clients with her.

Twitter comes to life in ‘Zola’

Director Janicza Bravo made Zola a movie for the social media age. She uses the tweet sound effect and emojis to punctuate the scenes. She also prints helpful subtitles to translate Stefani’s Twitter slang. This is how people talk in 2015 or 2020, but within a few years it will indeed seem like a foreign language.

The Twitter vibe works. At one point in the film the viewer gets conflicting accounts of events, although Stefani’s are blatantly disprovable. She swears while claiming to be a devout Christian. That’s the kind of lie someone like Stefani thinks she would get away with because she doesn’t actually know how Christians behave.

Janicza Bravo | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

In the car to Florida, Zola, Stefani, Derrek and X (Colman Domingo), who we later learn is Stefani’s pimp, lip sync to Migos’ “Hannah Montana” in selfie style cinematography. Bravo acknowledges the modern world where everyone is connected and has a camera, but it’s never obtrusive to the film.

Dark comedy in scary situations

Zola is a comedy, but Zola and Stefani are in a harrowing situation and the jokes are never at their expense. X is threatening them. Stefani is desperate to make money for her child. They never make light of sex work or the predicament, but the film finds humor in the absurd details of the clients. The customers for Zola’s lap dances make absurd comments too.

Zola ends up helping Stefani’s business, but that only creates more problems with X. It gets intense with guns involved by the end. 

Zola will live forever now

The Twitter thread had a life of its own, and deleting it didn’t make it go away. Still, social media and the online world can be fleeting. The movie Zola ensures that the story will never die. It will always be available for someone to rent, buy or stream.

Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun
Top: Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo Bottom: Riley Keough and Nicholas Braun | Emily Assiran/Getty Images for Pizza Hut

The film is for a very specific audience. You’d have to be able to stomach these characters for 90 minutes, and it is asking a lot. They are big, although Zola remains sympathetic trapped in their world. If it sounds like your kind of movie, then Zola has energy and comedy along its intense journey.