In 2015, A'Ziah "Zola" King, then a 20-year-old stripper from Detroit, got on Twitter and tapped out a 148-tweet account of a wild few days she had just spent with a fellow stripper named Jessica Swiatkowski down in Florida. The story – a blend of facts, King's perception of the facts, and outright fabrications – became a viral sensation, leading to what might be the first feature film to be adapted from tweets. Yet while Zola, the film, is filled with outrageous moments and visual whimsy, it doesn't have much to say besides, "What a crazy story!"
Aside from tweaking a few details, Zola is a faithful retelling of King's original tweetstorm. In the film version, Zola (Taylour Paige), a black waitress at a Hooter's-like restaurant, clicks with Stefani (Riley Keough), a spirited if sketchy white customer whose diction is more "black" than Zola's own. Both are strippers, and after working a night together at a local club, Stefani invites Zola to head down to Tampa, Florida with her for the weekend, to pick up even more money at the strip clubs down there. Zola agrees, only to learn that they will be accompanied by Stefani's naive boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun in a variation on his Succession character) and her "roommate" (Colman Domingo), a smooth talker whose Nigerian accent only comes out when he's angry. After they arrive in Florida, Zola discovers that the "roommate" is – surprise! – actually Stefani's pimp, and that he wants the girls to do more than dance.
Zola is a story about human trafficking, and at its core it's a frightening and depressing look at the world today. But you wouldn't know it by watching the movie: everything is so broadly played that you feel that director/cowriter Bravo and company are just here to show you a good time. (Strangely, while King's own tweets let us know what happened to these characters, the movie leaves us hanging with a shrug of a conclusion.) As such, I never bought that Zola would stick by this Stefani person instead of just hopping on the first plane home. In real life, King explained that she felt protective towards Swiatkowski and couldn't leave her alone with all these predatory men, but Keough fails to infuse Stefani with any sense of vulnerability; she comes across only as untrustworthy and manipulative. Paige's Zola, meanwhile, seems far too smart and collected to endure any of this for long.
In short, while Zola gives us a convincing look at life on the fringes, its storytelling is inconsequential. I'm not asking for every story about prostitution to be glum, but Zola could have had a little more meat on its bones.