It’s 2015. You’re leaning into the dizzying realm of the internet as it swells with dissonance, gossip, and a clamour of intrigue – it twinkles and itself becomes embodied.
On 27th October 2015, Twitter was held in a frenzy over a 148-tweet thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells that recounted her road trip to Florida with a girl named Jessica, Jessica’s lachrymose boyfriend, and a pimp named “X”. As if emerging from the archetypes of pulpy noir or a sleazy B-movie, Zola weaved together an odyssey, carved up into 140-character episodes, to an audience of thousands. It became synonymous with its own hashtag – #TheStory.
#TheStory splits down the middle; it hangs between discordant versions of the same narrative. Indeed, upon the viral exposure this story received, Jessica counteracted Zola’s saga with her own version. Soon after the infamous thread was published, Rolling Stone reached out and conducted an interview with Zola: “When [Zola] posted the story on Twitter, she was caught up in the moment, she explains, riffing on the reactions of her followers who were responding in real-time. She had posted and removed the story twice before and no one cared. To garner more interest this time, she made it darkly funny while preserving the gist of what happened. And she has no regrets.” This context envelops an already alluring premise into something enticingly mythic.
It’s 2020. A24 have just released Zola, Janicza Bravo’s bold adaptation of Zola’s twitterstorm. It opens with a whimsical air; two women, Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (based on Jessica, played by Riley Keough) stand before a mirror applying lip gloss. If you’ve seen HBO’s Euphoria, this image is reminiscent of Maddy and Cassie sauntering around a carnival house of mirrors high on MDMA, stroking their egos.
Flashback to Zola and Stefani’s actual meeting: a diner. Zola is Stefani and X’s waitress, where she piques Stefani’s curiosity. “You wanna go somewhere with me?” These words hang in the air as delicious fruit. Zola is lured by the gesture.
The two women work at the same strip club as exotic dancers, quickly bonding. ‘Follow 4 follow,’ one of the women rejoices. They exchange their handles across multiple platforms – Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook – each represents a different annal of their identity. This exchange functions as its own intimate transaction.
Hari Nef was right to coin and apply the term “instamacy” to Bravo’s film. There exists a feminine, specifically feminine-digital, sensibility within a tale so fervently dictated by masculine violence. This feminisation is most obvious inside the strip club’s dressing room, paying homage to the glittering hyperreality of Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Bravo swaps Verhoeven’s camp surrealism with digital mystique, sabotage with selfies. It is as if the film itself, blending imagination and adaptation, materialised from inside a woman’s iPhone, from her camera roll, her apps, her texts—bound together to form one spectral persona.
Bravo transcends the disturbing premise (the girls eventually end up embroiled in dangerous, unsolicited sex work) by making clear her film’s rich aesthetic potential. Perhaps there has yet to be a film so authentically referential to the digital age. One small example of Bravo’s representation of this is the use of subtitles. Though understated, subtitles appear to offer alternate meanings to what is said in live-action. Picture the head and speech bubble meme. Similarly, texts between the girls are read aloud with such obnoxious performativity it feels like face-to-face dialogue. Its theatricality departs from the purely expositional tropes of on-screen texting. Zola and Stefani vocalising their texts aloud so conversationally, as if they are in the same room, demonstrates Bravo’s awareness that texting no longer aims to strictly emulate speech, but speech emulates texting – how we live inside our keyboards, how we collectively occupy the same digital spaces. Bravo recognises that cinema is the most flexible medium to play with the limits of how we coexist in this semi-digital realm; she sees where precisely our on-screen personas meet each other and our inner selves.
There is something historically referential in how Bravo constructs her film. Much like silent era films contain title cards that situate audiences either in dialogue or plot, in Zola, Bravo frames specific sequences inside a lock screen, audibly punctuated by a recognisable shutter, to mark our time and place. These all-too-recognisable haptics orient our viewing experience along the course of action as it unfolds. That shutter sound is a familiar music, as is the whistle of a sent tweet that chimes at frantic intervals – as if an invisible figure is live-tweeting overhead.
Zola may well receive a mixture of reviews as it continues to circulate, though to judge Bravo’s film solely against the criteria of a dark comedy is to misunderstand its cinematic faculty. Melding literary mystique with a sugary, hyper-digital aesthetic, Bravo plays within a territory of cinema yet to be charted. Zola limns the digital age as an ever-personal trance.
Fact or fiction, the story of Zola and Jessica is passed along as tantalising gossip. This is not to suggest the events themselves were fabricated nor unharmful, but that the mythology that surrounds the girls has taken on a life of its own. It has been immortalised in our phones, as a speculative discourse between far-flung strangers.
We immerse ourselves in Zola as we immersed ourselves in its source material: both the Twitter thread and this adaptation are stories guided by perceptive, though perhaps unreliable, narration. Drifting in and out of a haze, somewhat numbed to the depravity, we pore over the details as detached, bewildered spectators. We scroll on; we leave the cinema; we wait for the next sensational tale.