In 2015 a woman named Aziah “Zola” Wells King started what would become a 148 tweet thread by saying “y’all want to hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out????????,” a sentence that would become the “Call me Ishmael” of long form social media storytelling. The ensuing story, a gonzo account of a wacky road trip a pair of strippers took to Tampa, went viral and quickly became a fixture of internet lore. Personally, I wasn’t in the loop on this alleged phenomenon and first heard about when news broke that someone was making a movie about it, and yeah, it’s pretty compelling. The way the story sort of escalates from moment to moment made it especially suited to the unconventional medium of a tweet storm and Zola’s writing style and unapologetic use of slang and stripper lingo is funny and keeps you reading and kind of makes you feel like you’re getting a window into a world of ratchet-ness that one would often want to avoid. Would it make a good movie? Wasn’t sure but I wanted to check it out.
The film begins with Zola (Taylour Paige) meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), the aforementioned “bitch” she would eventually have a falling out with, while waitressing at a Hooters-like restaurant and as they two begin talking they come to realize that both have experience working as exotic dancers. A day or two later Stefani invites Zola along on a road trip she’s taking to dance at Tampa clubs known for high tipping and the next thing you know the two are taking a “ho trip” down to Florida along with Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and also the guy who “takes care of her,” which is to say he’s her pimp, who is described as “Z” in the tweet storm but is credited as “X” (Colman Domingo) here. Things more or less go as planned at first, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Stefani and “X” are into some deeper illegality than Zola is expecting and things on this trip start to spiral out of control.
I went into the movie expecting it to be this wild propulsive ride through the Florida underworld along the lines of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but the final movie is perhaps a bit more relaxed than that, possibly to its detriment. The film is not particularly shy about the fact that it’s based on a tweet storm; it announces it with a title card at the beginning and more annoyingly it frequently makes Twitter bird noises after quotes from the original tweet storm come up and other social media sound effects. Could have done without that and I generally wasn’t a huge fan of the sound design here in general, particularly Mica Levi’s minimalist score. I’ve liked Levi’s work in other movies but this movie really needed an energy injection more than anything and Levi’s bloopy music didn’t really do it. I did quite like the cast though. Taylour Paige delivers Zola’s vocal patter with aplomb and while Riley Keough doesn’t quite manage to adopt to her characters vocal patterns as effectively she does eventually settle into her character. Colman Domingo is effectively scary as the violent pimp who causes the bulk of the film’s problem and Nicholas Braun gives a nicely comedic performance even if he is essentially recycling his naïve dope routine from the show “Succession.”
So as a stylistic exercise Zola didn’t really give me what I was hoping for but does it make up for this with substance? Almost, or at the very least it gave me a bit to chew on. The events of the original Tweet Storm are in many ways still somewhat mired in mystery. Zola’s account was the most popular but in its wake the Stefani and Derrek equivalents both put out their own accounts on different social media platforms. Stefani’s account is acknowledged by the movie and is mostly notable for how transparently untruthful it is. Derrek’s account isn’t mentioned in the film specifically but the film does draw from it in certain spots where Zola is not a point of view character. That account is mostly notable for how poorly written it is and there’s a reason it never went viral. I don’t know that I find Zola to be an inherently more trustworthy person than either of the others but there were definitely parts of her account that are contradicted by police reports of the situation (and I don’t necessarily see a specific motivation for them to lie about this particular situation, but who knows). Interestingly the film, while clearly siding with Zola on the events, does divert from all three accounts in certain places, especially in the last twenty minutes. Buried in this project there’s a bit of a Rashomon-like lesson to be learned about how one’s ability to tell a story affects who gets believed about what and how the platform you use (twitter, reddit, facebook, or independent film) affects what people think… but I kind of feel like I’m pulling that out myself rather than having it really surfaced by the film. If you’re not looking for that this mostly just feels like a cheeky re-enactment of an internet meme that is a bit past its expiration date, and if that’s what this is going to be I feel like the aforementioned lack of energy becomes a problem. I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of potential in this concept that just got left on the table and the final movie mostly disappointed me.
**1/2 out of Five