“You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out, it’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense,” Zola’s protagonist utters at the start of Janicza Bravo frenetic feature film, a sentence that happens to start the exhilarating Twitter thread by A’Ziah King of which the film is based on. The first film in cinema history adapted from a Twitter thread, the 143 entries-long tale hashtagged #TheStory depicts a stripper saga that initially appears as a stylish, vibrant ride before quickly spiralling into violent turmoil.
Distributed by independent film wheelhouse A24, Zola is a vogue modern tale that moves at the same pace as the social media world it exists in. Bubbling with frenetic electricity, Janicza Bravo takes us on a surreal voyage through the neon-tinged skyline of Florida, fueled by juiced-up caricatures of popular culture.
Tailing the lives of Zola (Taylour Paige) and newfound friend Stefani (Riley Keough), two part-time strippers in Detroit, we watch the pair bond over the joys of social media and the frivolities of modern life before Stefani asks Zola on a trip away. Agreeing to join her, Zola arrives and jumps in the back on a black 4×4, joined, to her surprise, by Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek, played excellently by Nicholas Braun and the mysterious driver X (Colman Domingo). Led to a seedy motel room, it soon becomes clear that X is, in fact, Stefani’s pimp and Zola is quickly embroiled in an exploitative predicament.
Very much existing in the realm of contemporary digital culture, Zola utilises several innovative techniques that suffuse with modern iconography, using Twitter’s audible ‘whistle’ when using a direct quote, whilst illustrating progression in time by using the home screen of an iPhone. Such creates a nightmarish modern fairytale, fueled by Mica Levi’s ethereal harpsicle score that hints at the American dream that the lead characters are so desperately trying to attain.
Though their methods of attainment differ from one another, struggling to maintain a healthy balance with Derrek, desperate for stability and a meaningful relationship, whilst Stefani and X seek fortune no matter the consequences. Zola is the stranger to such a dream and in many ways an idle protagonist to the actions of the other cast, an observing onlooker rather than an active participant. As a troupe of contemporary caricatures, the four individuals operate together effortlessly, often creating moments of genuine comedy with snappy back and forth dialogue.
A visionary project carried out with ferocious innovation, Janicza Bravo switches off the male gaze in this careful, illuminating examination of the stripper profession, flitting ingeniously between the dream and the reality of such a life. It’s a thin line and one that Bravo treads with creative discipline, retaining the film’s style without bathing too much in the flashy pleasures of stylish editing.
Though, perhaps just like the transient nature of modern media, Zola comes, relishes its time in the spotlight, then quickly becomes bored of its own existence and scuttles back to obscurity. Bravo’s film creates an eclectic cauldron of excitement, churning the story to thrilling heights before letting it ebb away into the ether, cutting once the film is at its dramatic pinnacle. It’s a frustrating, abrupt conclusion to an otherwise intoxicating journey that dips you in the vat of crazed popular culture and drags you out the other side.