Riley Keough, left, and Taylour Paige in “Zola.” Anna Kooris/A24 Films

In 2015, a 19-year-old Detroit dancer named A’Ziah Wells (now A’Ziah King) took to social media to process the trauma of a frightening trip she had recently taken to Florida. Her alternately horrifying and hilarious tweetstorm went viral, capturing the attention of such luminaries as Solange Knowles and Ava DuVernay. After Rolling Stone reported out the story – which King had reposted a few times, selectively embellishing and upping the humor for maximum impact – it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.

So, ladies and gentlemen, it has come to pass: “Zola” has arrived as the first narrative feature film based on a series of tweets. And, despite its unconventional source material, it turns out to be surprisingly well-crafted, elevated by breathtaking central performances and the stylish, slyly knowing sensibility of director Janicza Bravo.

Part road movie, part B-picture, part prurient walk on the wild side, “Zola” preserves the audacious, self-actualized voice and vulgar humor that made King’s 148 tweets such compelling reading. But Bravo and her screenwriter, playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) inject just enough ambivalence to ensure that the audience is never entirely comfortable with a story that in other hands might have been played as a slumming summer romp.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this (expletive) here fell out?” the title character announces in “Zola’s” opening scene. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” What ensues is a shaggy-dog tale of friendship-at-first-sight, adventure, betrayal, greed and escalating violence.

Zola (Taylour Paige) is working as a waitress when she meets a customer named Stefani (Riley Keough), and the two take an instant shine to each other. Complimenting Zola on her figure, Stefani asks if they’ve met before; discovering that they both dance in strip clubs around town, they two exchange numbers. The next day, Zola and Stefani are on their way to Florida, with Stefani’s hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate” X (Colman Domingo) in tow. The plan is to dance in Tampa, where they stand to make thousands of dollars over a weekend. The plan, suffice it to say, does not pan out.

Colman Domingo and Taylour Paige in “Zola.” Anna Kooris/A24 Films

Stefani, it turns out, has ensnared Zola in a far more dangerous scheme than just pole dancing; with her wide-eyed, gum-snapping stare, she exudes seductive charm, but almost everything she says is bogus. Keough delivers her lines in an affected African American patois, a virtuosic turn in which some might detect the whiff of her grandfather Elvis Presley’s music, itself a product of both organic cultural absorption and outright appropriation. But there all mentions of Presley should end.

Keough comes fully, even triumphantly, into her own in “Zola,” which marks her arrival as an exceptional actress. She has played similar parts before, in the movie “American Honey” and the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” Here, she vaults above and beyond even those impressive turns to deliver a performance that’s fearless, funny and, as Stefani’s true complicity becomes more obvious, terrifying.

Paige, for her part, is just as adroit in balancing “Zola’s” constantly shifting tectonics of brazen sexuality, physical danger and antic comedy (most of the latter is provided by clueless, mild-mannered Derrek, who resembles a chinstrap-bearded version of Braun’s Cousin Greg character on the HBO series “Succession”). Indeed, she has the toughest job in “Zola,” which is becoming a still beacon of self-possession amid the manipulations metastasizing around her. After one of Stefani’s more operatic arias delivered in “blaccent,” Zola simply gives her a long, impassive look before quietly saying, “Word.” When things get more dicey, she is first a level-headed observer of the mayhem that’s looming, and then a participant determined not to let it engulf her entirely.

“Zola” has been compared to “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine’s similarly colorful portrait of debauchery set in Florida. But unlike that movie, which wobbled uncomfortably between titillation and moral panic, Bravo’s version of King’s story is sure-footed, her vision clear-eyed and genuinely risk-taking. Lovingly filming Keough and Paige as they gyrate and twerk, the filmmaker isn’t reluctant to take pleasure in their physical beauty, and their lack of inhibitions have a liberated, vicarious thrill. Although she doesn’t dismantle the voyeuristic male gaze entirely in “Zola,” she troubles it, at one point treating viewers to an amusing montage of the penises a typical sex worker might encounter of an evening, and at another interrupting Zola’s sinuous stage dance with a customer telling her she looks like Whoopi Goldberg.

Bravo has said that she drew inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch and David Lynch in conceiving the visual language for “Zola,” which arrestingly combines exploitation and art, trash and transcendence. True to the story’s origins, she uses the beeps, whistles and pings of modern-day communications to punctuate the proceedings, making sure to include King’s most wildly popular aphorisms, virtually none of which can be printed in a family newspaper. The carefully curated aesthetic extends even to “Zola’s” score, a confection of harp glissandos, composed by Mica Levi, that lend the gritty proceedings an enchanted, otherworldly air.

As surreal and darkly funny as “Zola” often is, the terror that undergirds it is never far from consciousness: In real life, Domingo’s character would eventually be arrested for sexual assault, sex trafficking, battery and other crimes (he’s still in prison).

If Bravo and Harris make sure to allow space for the viewer’s discomfort, they still prefer to cast Zola as an avatar of female agency – a tricky and even questionable calculation that threatens to turn into another form of exploitation in the name of entertainment value and feminist uplift. Squirmy, sordid, stylized and sexy, “Zola” is a disorienting movie by design. For anyone tempted simply to laugh along, remember this: Underneath a woman proudly and profanely brazening it out is a girl desperately trying to save her own life.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.