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Non-Review Review: @zola

The opening line of @zola is inevitable.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b!tch here fell out?” asks Aziah King, the “Zola” of the title. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” There was simply no other way that the film was going to start. The line was foregrounded in the movie’s first trailer, and of course it was the opening tweet of the viral twitter thread (#TheStory) that inspired this cinematic adaptation. To put it simply, there was never any way that @zola was going to open any other way.

#NoTimeForReflection

However, the opening line is also a statement of purpose and a key to the film’s central joke. @zola positions that opening salvo as an iocnic statement of itself, a millennial riff on “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “call me, Ishmael.” The central conceit of Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of the twitter thread is to treat the work like a piece of some modern literary canon, a snapshot of modern America filtered through the prism of art, captured 140 characters at a time. It’s a clever approach, and the best part of @zola is how eagerly it commits to that wry framing.

@zola is an impressive piece of craft, a collision of a very classical formalism with a more modern sensibility to create something that exists in a striking and imaginative space. However, there are times when @zola commits too heavily to studying its characters through the prism of social media, making them feel more like macabre exhibits in some twenty-first century freakshow than actual human beings. Still, @zola sets out to capture an extremely online aesthetic and it largely succeeds – for better and for worse.

#FreaksAndGeeks

@zola is very obviously a story of the modern internet age. The characters within the film live their lives largely online. They communicate via message apps, they follow each other on Instagram, their families check for updates on Facebook, they set the record straight on reddit, they watch viral videos on TikTok. This is a film filtered through the lens of the hyper real, with characters frequently taking snapshots and posting selfies, curating online versions of themselves that seem at odds with and disconnected from the real world.

Bravo’s direction leans into this modern sensibility, never allowing the audience to forget how “extremely online” everything is. There are several shots taken from the point-of-view of a phone camera, complete with the last picture stored in the bottom left-hand corner for review. At one point, Zola herself zones out of a conversation by turning down the volume using a phone icon that conveniently appears on the side of the screen. The movie is punctuated with the sound of notifications, as if turning whatever screen the audience is using into a gigantic phone.

@zola includes several timestamps, but doesn’t position them as these legends are traditionally placed. The day and the time do not appear at the bottom of the screen in a log line or on black titlecards like a chapter break. Instead, the day and the time are placed at the top of the screen over establishing shots, as if to evoke the aesthetic of an iPhone lock screen. Bravo is adapting @zola in its native language, treating the material as indistinguishable from its medium.

However, these touches belie the real genius of Bravo’s direction. @zola is not a work of guerilla filmmaking. Despite the source material’s point of origin, @zola was not shot on a phone like Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane or Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Bravo shot @zola on 16mm film to make it “feel important.” This gets at the fascinating hybrid status of @zola. It is not just that @zola wants to capture the feeling of being “extremely online.” It is that it wants to fuse that sensibility with a decidedly more classical aesthetic. At times, @zola feels like a lost work of seventies cinema that just happens to be adapting a viral twitter thread.

#DrivenToSucceed

The best parts of @zola exist at this unlikely intersection between classic Hollywood formalism and new media storytelling. This is obvious from the film’s titlecard, a retro throwback that includes the classic roman numerals copyright warning and the classic Twitter at-sign. Cinematographer Ari Wegner gives the film a very classic look, lighting it very softly and giving the image a rich texture with soft edges that contrasts with the jagged edges of the characters who occupy the frame. @zola uses very traditional cinematic language, particularly fade-ins and fade-outs.

The wry central conceit of @zola is that Bravo is approaching a viral Twitter thread like a work of high art. At various points in the film, Bravo visually quotes from movies like Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus or Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Mica Levi’s score occasionally feels like it was lifted from some classical cinematic fairy tale, perhaps even a musical. Although @zola is perfectly capable of depicting squalor and decay, Wegner shoots the characters’ lavish Florida apartment like it’s a sound stage set with its soft pastels and wide open spaces.

While @zola is a film about new media, Bravo largely avoids the conventions of modern movies about this digital frontier. Although characters in @zola are frequently communicating with one another through apps, Bravo avoids the ubiquitous “messages pop up on screen” trope that Sherlock popularised. Instead, she shoots these conversations like classic dialogue sequences, with a shot/reverse-shot approach that just happens to acknowledge that the characters aren’t sharing the same physical space. It’s a decidedly classical approach to a very modern narrative element, and that simply choice is @zola in a nutshell.

Unfortunately, @zola is most impressive in technical terms. The film struggles a bit when it comes to realising its characters and their narratives. This is perhaps most obvious in how the film fails to live up to that iconic opening promise. Despite the title character’s assurance that the story is “kinda long”, the film clocks in neatly at ninety minutes. Despite the character’s assurance that it is “full of suspense”, the actual plot of the film is surprisingly low key. There’s very little truly outrageous or absurdist in @zola, which feels very much of a piece with other contemporary American indies like Queen and Slim.

#FaceToFaceTime

Part of the problem is undoubtedly one of translation. Twitter is a notoriously unsubtle medium. The author only has 140 characters to express themselves in a given tweet, and so it lends itself to hyperbole and caricature. However, a cinematic narrative has a bit more space and room to breathe. So it makes sense for the tweet threat to punctuate its narrative with observations signalling that Stefani is not to be trusted and that the mysterious “X” is very mysterious, but having a film punctuate its narrative – literally freezing the frame – to tell the audience these self-evident details, kills the momentum.

Similarly, the limitations of Twitter lead to a conservation of narrative detail that doesn’t lend itself to a particularly engaging cinematic story. One of the threads in @zola follows Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derek. Derek accompanies Zola, Stefani and X on their trip to Florida. X warns Derek not to leave his sleazy motel room, and not to trust anybody he doesn’t know. However, Derek inevitably refuses to listen to X, and strikes up an unlikely relationship with a young man named Dion. Of course, it’s no surprise when all of this inevitably comes back to bite the characters – but there’s no suspense either.

There’s something slightly frustrating in this. After all, one of the primary appeals of #TheStory was how wild and insane it was – effectively released in a very short and very heightened serialised narrative. In contrast, @zola feels frustratingly predictable and familiar. This is the flipside of the film’s intersection of classic formalism and new media, an illustration that maybe the narrative conventions of one medium do not neatly and directly transpose into another.

Of course, this is arguably the point of it all. Online life is very vapid and very shallow. It is heightened and exaggerated, but ultimately a little unreal. After all, one of the big debates about the original viral thread was the extent to which the story was true. The film itself hedges, assuring viewers that “most of what follows is true.” However, what was an epic and unlikely roller coaster of an adventure in a series of 140 character messages ceases to be particularly impressive on film.

#TheMediumIsTheMessageApp

@zola also suffers because it struggles to bring out any of the humanity in its central characters. The movie gestures repeatedly at big ideas, like the gulf between the caricatures that manifest in online personas and the nuance of real human beings, but it never consistently zeroes in on the paradox. Repeatedly, Zola looks in a mirror and asks herself, “Who ya gonna be tonight, Zola?” It’s a very pointed question in an era where so much of an individual’s persona is curated and shaped, but the film itself never really settles on an answer to that question. More to the point, it never seems interested in settling on an answer.

Similarly, there’s an inherent tension in the narrative of @zola, about who gets to tell their side of the story and how. As the title of the film suggests, @zola is told from Zola’s perspective and through her eyes. However, the result of this is that characters like Stefani, Derek, X and his partner Baybe feel more like grotesque cartoons than real people. “Your brain is broken,” Zola warns Stefani, and that seems as deep a read as the film has on Stefani.

There’s a beautiful moment towards the end of @zola when it seems like the film might acknowledge this reality head-on, as the narrative shifts from Zola’s Twitter thread to Stefani’s reddit post asserting her side of the story. It might be an interesting window into the idea that social media has made everybody the protagonist of their own story, and asking the audience how comfortable they are acknowledging that postmodern reality. However, even in this shift, @zola refuses to present Stefani as anything more than a caricature and cartoon.

@zola is admittedly a blackly comic film, but it’s interesting to wonder what direction the film is bunching and who it has decided that the joke should be on. It is admittedly hilarious to have Riley Keough deliver the line “I f&!k with Jesus”, but it also feels a waste to strip the character of any real humanity or agency. After all, @zola is rightfully horrified at how Stefani is used and exploited by the men around her, which adds an awkward complexity to the idea that Zola herself used Stefani as a way to bolster her own profile and credibility.  @zola never grapples with squaring that circle.

#SelfieControl

To be fair, it is possible that this is intentional and deliberate. There is a solid argument to be made that Bravo is simply successfully channeling the shallowness of so much of social media into the film’s narrative. If that is the case, then @zola feels like a cruel joke. If this is an attempt to treat a millennial social media narrative as something worthy of a classical cinematic adaptation, then it feels particularly cynical to invite the audience to gawk at the subjects of the narrative as something equivalent to a twenty-first century circus freakshow.

@zola is a beautifully made film. It’s also a curiously shallow one. Perhaps it is the perfect adaptation of a Twitter thread.

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