Unlike recent duds Mainstream and PVT Chat, Zola is a film that cuttingly, brutally understands what it is to be Extremely Online.
No film better encapsulates the callous ferocity of our strikingly virtual and sleekly hyper-real era than one conceived within its very nethers. This carnal metaphor warrants further unpacking: its connotations of privacy and intimacy have acquired, through unwarranted disclosure and unwanted exposure, a denotative transparency, a delightful exhibiting of taboo. Twitter, arguably the quintessential social network of this era (move along, Fincher!) despite being in the shadow of Facebook for a good decade since their near-concurrent geneses, has likewise amassed a demographic popularity across ages, nationalities, and political affiliations; to tap into its psyche is, in a way, the most direct method of profiling, whether to extol or excoriate, its network of exchanges and experiences. And before yet another insatiable arm of the studio oligarchy decides to ride the latest wave generated by its attention economy — first The Emoji Movie, from emoticons, now Jungle Cruise, based on a literal theme park ride, and soon even the procedurally-generated terraforming of Minecraft: The Movie — let it be noted that the Twitterverse’s foremost adaptation has already come to fruition with Zola, the sophomore feature from Janicza Bravo and one of the few films to effectively capitalize on its Extremely Online sensibilities to greater and more sophisticated ends.
The inception and development of Zola bears a somewhat anachronistic imprint: shot and premiering prior to COVID-19, its textual origins harken back to 2015, prior to the doubling of characters per tweet to 280. Capped at a measly 140, tweets expressed (and still do) passing sentiment, playful aphorism, or pithy information; that is, until they were strung by the dozens into “threads,” a now-commonplace unit of the millennial lexicon. On October 27 of that year, Aziah Wells (@_zolarmoon), more famously known as Zola, transcribed a weekend gone wild onto one such thread, consisting of 148 tweets and commencing with an invitation to read “about why me and this bitch here fell out.” Zola (dramatized in the film by Taylour Paige), while waitressing, meets the aforementioned bitch Jessica (“Stefani” in Bravo’s adaptation; a terrific dumb-blonde performance courtesy of Riley Keough) and accepts the latter’s invitation to a road trip in Florida. To “dance” ostensibly meant earning a quick buck at the stripper pole, but quickly this casual prospect progresses into a tale of inveiglement and coercion far removed from our narrator’s quotidian routine. With Jessica’s boyfriend and roommate in tow, they find themselves in the seedy backwaters of Tampa amid a hustle that sees money change hands, guns pulled in setups sprung, and a good deal of humiliation meted out — all observed with the clinical detachment of Twitter’s epigrammatic presentation and the wicked glee of its uninhibited neologisms.
Such stylistic verve has been around for a while, long enough to inspire pastiches, and then parodies, of itself; where Pulp Fiction’s historic Palme d’Or win and Showgirls’ critical re-evaluation opened up the possibilities of aesthetic representation far beyond Code-era puritanism or its antithetical synthesis of neorealist exploitation, their ubiquity has also tempered the cultural influence exerted initially upon their release, settling into torridity and lazy cynicism. In Bravo’s hands, however, Zola bucks this inexorable trend with a discordant tonal register designed refreshingly for purposes other than autofellatio. While many of its contemporaries end up emulating the transgressions they seek to critique, the nefarious Twitter-film delivers instead a biting dark comedy unabashed in matters of taste, underlining through this very medium both the moral confusion and emotional artifice permitted by an increasing virtualization of human interaction. Structured mostly around Zola’s point-of-view (although briefly permitting Stefani’s rejoinder to some of the former’s allegations), it punctuates the narrative with periodic cuts to her face, registering mostly taciturn disapproval of the events unfolding before her. Elsewhere, the medium is the message: tweets and text messages voiced out, shots looped to the satisfaction of serial TikTok users, bite-size montages of close-up sex befitting of Instagram Stories, Mica Levi’s chameleonic and glossy score with an accompaniment of notification pings and keyboard clicks. All these underscore a panache characteristic of the central contradiction within social media, namely its simultaneous authenticity and superficiality, as the discursive reality of a generation inured to sensationalism combines a hunger for sincere and stable intimacy with its coping mechanism of ironic aloofness.
Crucially, although these voiceovers and other embellishments litter Zola with little jolts of irreverence, it’s the seeming nonchalance overall that proves most scathing of the sociological reality beneath the skin-deep: a sordid world of sexual and economic exploitation defined by transactions, power plays, and — most conspicuously — the self-awareness that affixes its gaze onto them but never deteriorates into self-aggrandizement. No doubt provoking laughter in response, Bravo’s adroit balancing act engenders profound unease toward the same laughter given the circumstances leading to it, and even Derek (Nicholas Braun), Stefani’s boyfriend and the film’s most pathetic character, suffers persistent emasculation beyond most archetypal expectations. It’s worth mentioning that this Extremely Online work doesn’t dabble in themes directly associated with the virtual sphere; in fact, it hardly even takes place online. This alone sets it apart from the likes of Gia Coppola’s Mainstream and Ben Hozie’s PVT CHAT, whose half-baked designs confuse noise for trenchancy, familiarity for currency, appearing to coast degeneracy without actually setting foot in its waters. Zola, meanwhile, takes the plunge into the toilet, appraising its unsavory contents with measured distaste, but carefully avoiding the patronizing pulpit. It brings to mind the great Pasolini’s frequently misunderstood Salò some forty-five years prior: at the banquet, the President instructs his stud to stuff his fingers into his mouth, and then proclaim his inability to eat rice like that. The stud obeys accordingly, and the President, positively beaming, exclaims, “then eat shit!” Contrary to popular belief, the scene is convivial and the President himself sports a shit-eating grin.