There is no hyper-modern behavior more self-indulgent than retelling social media drama to people who weren’t there or don’t care. Forum intrigue can be pretty tedious and inscrutable. Do we really need to resurface the little humiliations of obsessive social media usage in real life? That’s the challenge inherent in adapting a story based on even the most famous and breathtaking thread in the history of Twitter: the risk of taking an in-joke too far and wide.
But Zola, the A24 film released on Wednesday, overcomes this challenge rather early in its running time. Yes, the titular stripper did indeed go on to publish 148 tweets about her disastrous journey to Tampa. But in the film’s first act, Zola only obsesses over her phone to text back and forth with a blaccented white siren, Stefani, who’s determined to drag Zola to certain demise at the hands of various gangsters and wildmen. This isn’t Twitter. This is Florida.
Directed by indie filmmaker Janicza Bravo, cowritten with Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris, Zola adapts the viral confessional tweeted by A’ziah “Zola” King—a.k.a., @_zolarmoon—on October 27, 2015. Shortly after Zola’s thread went viral, A24 optioned the subsequent feature in Rolling Stone, resolving some inconsistencies and flagging some embellishments but otherwise reinforcing Zola’s account. “It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj,” the article’s author David Kushner wrote. The film adaptation, though raunchy, goes bleaker. It’s Training Day for strippers.
The mission is deceptively simple. Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) during her waitstaff shift at Hooters, and Stefani recruits Zola into a road trip to dance at clubs in Tampa. Zola joins Stefani, her boyfriend Derek, and her so-called “roommate” X on the road, only to discover the false pretext for this journey: Zola and Stefani aren’t in Tampa just to dance, they’re in town to sell sex. And X, far from being anyone’s roommate, turns out to be Stefani’s pimp. For the rest of the trip, Zola struggles to break free from this wild and dysfunctional crew as they constantly risk getting each other killed.
In a sense, it’s a timeless story with broad appeal, hence its adaptation into a movie. But it’s also a specific and now ancient moment in social media time. Here we have a six-year-old Twitter thread predating the doubling of the character limit for tweets, anticipating the proliferation of enumerated essays on the platform, but doing so before so many petty polemicists wrung the novelty from this format. It was a different time, and Twitter ages its personalities and dramas at a merciless rate, so in six years the moment passed several times over. Indeed, a worse movie might have seemed dated. But Zola gets rather nostalgic.
It’s easier reading the original thread to understand how Zola entrusted herself to a doomed caravan bound for Tampa. She’s entrepreneurial and adventurous, having traveled from Michigan to Florida to dance in clubs just a couple of months earlier. She’s savvy enough. She just so happens to stumble into a surreal and impossible escalation: first dancing, then pimping, then cucking, then kidnapping, then shooting, then a suicide attempt, and then finally a sad escape back up I-95. Her story “about why me and this bitch here fell out” may be her magnum opus, but Zola—a self-described “suburban bitch” elevated to “Queen of hoeism”—struck me as a woman who could dish out similar stories for days.
The Zola in Zola isn’t so bold, opinionated, or expressive. In the tweets, Zola often launched into all caps. In the movie, Zola sinks into stunned silences. As a narrator she’s exhausted, overburdened with the advantages of hindsight. As a protagonist in the contemporary progression she seems to embark on the road trip to Tampa despite her introversion and better judgment. She’s too good to be sharing a Jeep Wrangler with these people. To offer an alternative motivation for Zola joining Stefani on the ride to the bleeding edge of cell service, Zola reimagines the fateful introduction as a meet-cute—Zola and Stefani trading obsessive glances and heart emoji until Stefani, Derek, and X start racking up betrayals.
I’m sure plenty of viewers will see the movie with little to no familiarity with the original thread. But the rest of us know how this story goes, and so Zola’s heightened trepidation seems designed to restore our own. It is, despite my nitpicking at the tonal disparities, a smart decision on balance to tamp her down. It’s harder (though not impossible) to imagine this version of Zola going on to publish 148 consecutive tweets written with easy irreverence about this ordeal. Zola turns Zola into an everywoman, and thus makes room for the average viewer to inhabit the situation. Can you even begin to envisage how you’d survive this bullshit? You’d be speechless, too. You’d see a therapist for years after the fact, and you damn sure wouldn’t tweet a Great American Memoir within the relevant statutes of limitations. The other characters are truer to the original account, though the names are changed: X (Colman Domingo) is a charming but ruthless boogeyman; Derek (Nicholas Braun) is a nervous wreck; the local hustler Dion (Jason Mitchell) is a supreme heel; and Stefani is at once cursed and the curse itself.
Having considered the inconsistencies in Zola’s characterization, it might seem appropriate to note some plot differences between the tweets and the movie. But the original thread, however true to life, thrived by creative license. Some readers doubted her account, so Zola later provided timestamps and other forensics. But most users, I suspect, understood her tremendous literary command in real-time to be her genuine and indisputable distinction. That’s what made her story worthy of a Hollywood adaptation despite it needing to lose the crucial, extemporaneous magic in its original telling.
Still, Zola does right by the storyteller, her material, and the original medium of its dissemination. It keeps you wondering how these characters manage to not only survive, but profit long and large enough to turn their death wishes into lifestyle coverage. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it,” Zola told Rolling Stone. Zola doubles down on this invitation and leaves the nitpicking for the birds.