sundance 2020

Zola, a Stripper Saga Based on a 148-Tweet Thread, Premieres at Sundance

Aziah “Zola” King herself was on hand to introduce the film to a gently stoned audience in Utah. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Riley Keough has pneumonia. But that didn’t stop the actress from coming out for an extreme stoner-energy midnight screening of Zola at Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, where she joined co-stars Taylour Paige, Colman Domingo, Nicolas Braun, writer-director Janicza Bravo, co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, and Aziah “Zola” King herself for a loose post-screening Q&A. “I think I’m the only sober person here,” mused Keough as her co-stars popped in and out of fake British accents, held each other’s hands, and recounted what it was like to make a film based on a 148-tweet thread.

“The hardest part was the montage of penises,” said the film’s editor Joi McMillon. “Nobody should have to look at that. I’m just saying, I’m a survivor.”

The mood of the evening matched the film, a disorienting dark comedy based on King’s viral tweet storm from 2015, which chronicled a Floridian road trip gone dangerously but hilariously sideways. Before the movie screened, Paige (who plays the titular Zola) and Keough (who plays Stefani, the infamous “this bitch here,” with whom Zola fell out over the course of trip), traipsed merrily up to the stage to warn everyone they “couldn’t promise you’ll like the film,” but that it would “keep you awake.” Keough surveyed the audience, which included Tessa Thompson (who snuck in at the last minute in a green crushed velvet hat to snag a seat next to Amandla Sternberg) and Paige’s boyfriend Jesse Williams. “I smell marijuana,” Keough said, accurately.

Zola unfurls like a low-grade fever nightmare, which seems right for the first film based on a series of tweets. The 90-minute movie has an oozy, bemusing rhythm that never quite lets you settle into the story, vacillating between screwball-funny and unsettlingly violent. Some scenes feel frenetic and anxiety-riddled, while others seem to exist out of time, like the long, hypnotic shots of the late-night Floridian roads that Zola and Stefani traverse as they attempt to get out from under the terrifying thumb of Domingo’s “X,” a pimp with a hair-trigger temper. Bravo — whose singularly cockeyed perspective drives Zola — peppers the movie with slightly Lynchian details: Stefani and Zola squat in a public bathroom, and the camera lingers on Stefani’s bright yellow pee; when the main characters arrive at their dank Floridian motel, two young boys dribble a basketball back and forth as if stuck in a sort of quantum loop. During more climactic moments, the film freezes so Zola can share her uniquely witty observations; bits of dialogue are punctuated by the quiet dings of Twitter, indicating Zola’s future retelling of the tale.

Other scenes are shot from security-camera angles that feel a little Kubrickian and uncanny. At one point the camera zooms into Zola’s brain, represented as a sort of wavy Microsoft screensaver. Another sequence, shot like a Vine, features Braun, Paige, and Keough rapping to Migos’s “Hannah Montana” as Keough twerks energetically in the backseat of a car. The aforementioned “montage of dicks,” which belong to Stafani’s revolving door of Backpage customers, plays out like it’s been shot through a retro viewfinder. It’s all set to a Mica Levi score that’s both jarring and erotic. The whole thing feels like a cracked-mirror Hustlers meets Uncut Gems meets The Florida Project meets The Shining. 

“I like for things to feel stressful,” laughed Bravo at the post-screening Q&A. “I like bad vibes. I’m really attracted to them cinematically, as long as there’s humor always somewhere around the corner.” She credited much of the film’s idiosyncratic tone to its inspiration, King. “Once I got the job, the first thing I wanted to do was to be able to talk to her. In a way, I needed to have her blessing,” said Bravo. “The thing that was most important to Jeremy and I when writing the script — what turned us on most about that Twitter thread — was her voice, her agency. It was ferocious and sexy and disturbing and magnetic. We wanted to do her justice.”

An audience member who identified themselves as “from Tampa” asked the Zola team to share their most challenging moments from filming. “For me, it was jumping off the balcony,” answered Braun, whose character Derrek, Stefani’s constantly cucked boyfriend, attempts suicide at the end of the film. “I had to do it four or five times.” Asked how he got into character, Braun said he realized right off the bat that Derrek “needed a chinstrap beard. That was my way in.” Keough adopted a disturbing Bhad Bhabie-esque accent to make her character “as inappropriate as possible,” while Paige’s prep included a month working undercover as a stripper named “Zo” at Crazy Girls in Los Angeles. “I’m a ballerina and I didn’t want to look like a ballet dancer,” she said. “I wanted to look like a stripper bitch.”

Harris briefly recounted his own journey co-writing the film with Bravo, who he became friends with a few years ago. “I’m her biggest fan,” he said. “To see the types of mountains she had to climb to put a pen to paper was truly crazy. It made me realize that as hard as my life is as a black queer man, I still have a ‘man’ at the end of that, and no matter how many purses I wear, I don’t know what it’s like — Janicza’s too demure to ever talk about it, but it’s been crazy.”

The last audience question was directed at Bravo and centered on Zola’s portrayal of racial dynamics. “The opening prologue with the two women in the mirror box tells you that this is going to be a story about two women: black, white. And about a thing that doesn’t go well,” said Bravo. “So yes, race is there in every single second of the film.” She also alluded to the recent discussions on social media about the language some critics have used to talk about film, which address themes like cultural appropriation and confronts assumptions about sex work. “With Stefani and Zola, particularly, it was really important to humanize what they did and their work,” she said. “The language around how [some critics] present the movie — there’s language for people that’ll write about the film that’s diminutive. That gives [Stefani and Zola] less value.”

“I think this story matters,” she added. “There are many more stories like this that matter, and I hope that what we’ve created here tells people in this industry that there are probably a multitude of places to find riveting text. It’s not just the [places] we’ve been looking before.”

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Zola, a Movie Based on a Tweet Thread, Premieres at Sundance