‘Zola’ Review: Twitter? I Hardly Know Her!

A notorious tweetstorm arrives onscreen, starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough.

By A.O. Scott

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“Is it as good as the book?” is a question movie critics often hear, whether the book in question is a Harry Potter adventure or something more highbrow. “Is it as good as the tweets?” is a new one, at least for this movie critic, and in the case of “Zola” it opens a surprisingly interesting line of inquiry. Tweets may or may not be literature, but as a storytelling medium Twitter has its own integrity, a rhythm and aesthetic that pose distinctive challenges for film adaptation.

That’s what interested me, anyway. I should also note that this is a movie about strippers.

Directed by Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”) from a script she wrote with the Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), “Zola” is adapted from a thread that galvanized Twitter back in 2015, when it was somewhat less dominated by expressions of political contempt and moral self-righteousness than it is now. There was more room for crazy stories, and on Oct. 27 of that year, A’Ziah King started posting the profane, hair-raising, occasionally hilarious tale of an ill-starred excursion to Florida that involved sex work, gun play and a highly problematic frenemy. (Her thread became the subject of a Rolling Stone article, which “Zola” also credits as a source.)

“So I met this white bitch at Hooters,” King (who also goes by Zola) wrote in the second tweet. “I was her waitress!” In the movie, the name of the restaurant has been changed, and the customer, called Stefani, is played by Riley Keough with hair extensions and a slightly demented smile. Zola, played with more reserve by Taylour Paige, is charmed by Stefani’s bubbly manner and nonstop patter — heart emojis fly across the screen to affirm their bond — and agrees to an impromptu weekend jaunt to Tampa.

It’s mostly a business trip. Stefani and Zola are both exotic dancers — Zola practices on a pole in the living room of her apartment — lured by the money that supposedly rains down on the strip-club stages of the Sunshine State. For company they have Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, familiar to “Succession” fans as Cousin Greg), a sweet-natured doofus with a chinstrap beard and a backward baseball cap. Their driver is a man Stefani introduces as her roommate. He switches accents and names — the final credits identify him only as X — and because he’s played by the endlessly inventive and unnervingly charismatic Colman Domingo you may find yourself watching him closely and hoping he’ll be back soon whenever he steps away.

Zola has other reasons for keeping an eye on him, and for wishing him out of her life altogether. Stefani may be unpredictable and not entirely honest, but X, who turns out to be in charge of the weekend’s activities, operates at a whole different level of cunning and menace. He also turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, with a gun-toting girlfriend (Sophie Hall) waiting in Florida. The moneymaking agenda soon switches from stripping to prostitution, and Zola is dismayed to find her services advertised on the internet alongside her friend’s.

She draws a firm boundary, refusing to turn tricks and instead becoming Stefani’s assistant manager and de facto madam — setting the prices, choosing the selfies, greeting the johns and collecting the cash. “Zola” is emphatically not the story of its protagonist’s victimization, even though she is duped, prevented from going home and sometimes threatened with violence. Rather, she is the incredulous witness, the wise narrator and the resilient hero of what might otherwise have been a sad little anecdote.

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