There are eyes, and then there are Taylour Paige’s eyes.
In Zola, a crackling, absurdist road trip movie inspired by a crackling, absurdist Twitter thread, the camera’s gaze is frequently drawn to the bodily form – a stripper’s smooth, exposed curves; a man’s languid, exposed junk; lips being painted a deep cherry red; long, slender fingernails clinking against a window.
But then there are Paige’s eyes, which convey more in a shift, squint, or roll than some performers can with their entire corporeal being. Those glances, those looks, are the delectable amuse-bouche in this feast of storytelling, and a grounding presence for the viewer amidst all the madness and weirdness that ultimately unfolds.
But hold up – insert brief freeze-frame here – allow me to back up and explain. In 2015, a Detroit waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King crafted a viral, vivid 148-tweet thread recounting a wild trip she took to Tampa, Fla. upon an invitation from Jessica, a white woman and fellow exotic dancer she’d known for exactly one day. The story involved a cast of indelible characters, including Jessica’s pimp Z, a menacing dude who would suddenly possess an “African accent” during fits of rage, and Jessica’s boyfriend Jarret, an awkward, pitiful guy who just wanted her to stop being a sex worker.
Yet Zola herself was undoubtedly the star of this story. From that very first opening line, accompanied by selfies of the author and Jessica together, it was obvious she has a bold personality and a spiky way with words: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b—- here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
And now Zola’s comedy of errors has been dramatized for the screen, directed by Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris. Their Zola wisely takes its cues from the source, hewing closely to the main plot twists and turns, sometimes quoting King’s Tweets directly. Names have been changed: Jessica is now Stefani (Riley Keough), Z is now X (Colman Domingo) and Jarrett is now Derrek (Nicholas Braun). But these colorful characters build on the energy of that thread, playing even more vividly than you might have imagined them in your head.
Stefani is bombastic, spilling forth with an over-the-top “blaccent” – perhaps Keough is channeling Bhad Bhabie, the white rapper and celebrity who became known as the “Cash me outside” girl after an infamous appearance on Dr. Phil – that is at once inviting and ominous. From the get-go she seems suspect, a little too friendly and overly familiar when first encountering Zola, her waitress at a sports bar-type establishment. (Her first comment to Zola is an unfiltered compliment of her breasts.) And Zola herself seems wary of this whirlwind of a woman – again, it’s all there in the eyes – but you can also see how someone like her might be seduced into traveling across the country with a complete stranger like Stefani, who promises a windfall of cash for a night or two of dancing at a club. It’s because of the money, yes, but it’s also because of the possibility for adventure.
Of course, if you recall the Tweets that started it all, you’re aware Zola isn’t so much seduced as she is bamboozled by Stefani, and once they’ve reached the south, things quickly go south. In the vein of plenty of movies set in Florida – especially Spring Breakers, another tale of young white women gone ratchet – there’s always a sense that danger; the truly bizarre, or some combination of the two, is lurking around every corner. There’s a surrealistic quality to the aesthetic, the camera’s lens emitting a haze evoking both humidity and a dream-like state.
Writer-director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris find a distinct, playful rhythm in nearly every image, sound, and piece of dialogue. Text message exchanges don’t appear onscreen as they would on a phone, but instead are spoken aloud by the actors in a borderline-mono-tone as they type and recite at the same time; it suggests the zombifying role technology plays in our lives even as it carves out more avenues for connection. As if mimicking re-tweet and share buttons, dialogue, imagery, and sounds are often repeated, layered side by side or intermittent. (One striking motif depicts Zola posing and preening in a hall of mirrors, her many reflections spanning the entire frame).
And as Paige’s Zola narrates the adventure, she echoes the real-life Zola’s written cadence, delivering some of the film’s funniest moments as she reacts to her increasingly worrying surroundings. A movie like this could easily turn into a tale where the protagonist is merely a bystander along with the viewer, with everything happening to her and no sign of agency or personality in sight. But again, I come back to Paige’s performance and how so much of it rides on what she does with those eyes, and not what she says. You know how there are some people who suck at making a poker face – the ones who just can’t possibly suppress the expressions that stream across their face no matter how hard they try? That’s Zola. During one of the movie’s recurring freeze-frame moments, Zola advises us to “watch every move” Stefani makes going forward. The same should be stressed in regard to Zola, who seems to instinctively know when to sit back and observe, when to assert herself, and when she needs to be worried. It’s all there on her face.
The real-life Zola was reportedly involved behind-the-scenes, approving the script and receiving an executive producing credit, a move that seems to have kept the film from the very real danger of being exploitative of King’s story. It also helps that Bravo and Harris are an ideal match for this narrative, as both creators possess styles tending to revel in the discomforting and disorienting as a means of saying the quiet, horrifying parts people are not “supposed to” reveal out loud. (See Lemon, Bravo’s subversive directorial debut interrogating an insidious brand of white male intellectualism; and Slave Play, Harris’s polarizing, Tony-nominated Broadway debut bluntly confronting modern interracial relationships.)
These perspectives help bring Zola into a realm beyond clever Twitter adaptation, and center her point of view as an illustration of the precarity of existing as a Black woman in the world. When Zola does choose to assert herself and make her feelings known – “This is messy! You are messy!” – she’s routinely dismissed and ignored by the others. It’s an extreme representation of a common feeling many Black women have felt at one time or another: How you can be taken advantage of and told everything is fine when you know in your gut that it’s not; can be told you’re overreacting to something that’s happening to you when you know you’re supposed to feel this way. In fact, it’s good and smart to feel this way, because that’s how you preserve yourself. Zola’s whirlwind dalliance with Stefani and her associates plays like a fever dream doubling as an allegory for gaslighting. It’s a jolt when, at a pivotal point, she wonders aloud, “Who’s looking out for me?”
The third act stumbles a bit over typical third-act problems – how to maintain momentum and surprise after so much build amidst twists and turns? – and the ending feels to me a bit abrupt. But it’s a small price to pay for entering this realm and experiencing it through Zola’s eyes, in all its richness. It may have taken several years to shift from tweet to screen, but it’s well worth the wait.