Zola Expands the Idea of What can be Adapted
Zola screening provided by Sony Pictures
“Bravo is a serious talent that uses every weapon at her disposal to tell a propulsive story that still finds room to linger in quiet moments.”
“Based on a Twitter thread” is possibly the biggest hurdle a film has had to overcome from its inception, which makes Janicza Bravo’s sophomore feature Zola (2021) all the more impressive. Boasting a knockout cast featuring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, and Nicolas Braun, this internet focused dramedy brings you into a unique world that feels dangerous and intoxicating.
This propulsive road trip film is based on the viral Twitter thread by A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King from 2015 that follows her story from Detroit to Tampa over the course of several days. The film changes the names of the real people outside of Zola but is otherwise mostly faithful to the story of Zola joining Stefani (Keough), who she met the day before, her boyfriend Derrick (Braun), and her ‘roommate’ (Domingo) on a trip to Tampa to make money dancing.
The film is a really interesting work of adaptation from the unique source of King’s Twitter thread. A big reason Zola succeeds is its ability to lean into how a story on the platform is told — short bursts that move with lightning pace — while also revelling in being able to play around in the in-between spaces between tweets.
I was originally very sceptical of a feature film being based on a Twitter thread as a concept but Bravo’s storytelling prowess sold me on the concept almost immediately. It may sound insane to compare Zola to Chang-Dong Lee’s brilliant 2018 feature Burning, but both films are adaptations of works that allow the filmmaker the room to expand the original stories from King and Murikami respectively. I’m obviously not comparing the work of one of the greatest living writers to a twitter thread, but both works have recently been adapted by filmmakers that were clearly interested in making the film because of the opportunity to expand the moments in between the lines to create something great. Although it must be said, Zola is not at the level of Burning, one of the best films of the last 5 years.
Indie darling studio A24 has now produced a full swathe of film’s set in Florida that all feel of a piece while also telling different stories that comment on modern America. There’s Spring Breakers (2013), Moonlight (2016), The Florida Project (2017), Waves (2019), and now Zola that are some of the studio’s best work. The latter two feel the most of a piece in its atmosphere and ability to combine very modern storytelling and setting with Malick-esque filmmaking flourishes that compliment each other in impressive ways.
Colman Domingo and Taylour Paige in A24’s Zola
Bravo is a serious talent that uses every weapon at her disposal to tell a propulsive story that still finds room to linger in quiet moments. These ethereal moments feel earned and impactful because of their juxtaposition within the breakneck narrative.
The standout aspect of Zola to me was the film’s soundscape, the best use of sound this year. It’s seamless combination of sound design, soundtrack decisions, and Mica Levi’s score blends into this propulsive yet ethereal crashing wave of a story that could honestly be told as a radio drama.
Mica Levi is the most impressive composer to emerge in the last 10 years and directors should be falling over themselves to work with them. With previous credits on Under the Skin (2013), Jackie (2016), and the two best films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020) series, Levi has been building an impressively diverse filmography with some of the most interesting filmmakers working today.
What stood out in their work here is the score’s ability to harmoniously blend in with both the sound design and soundtrack cues to create a soundscape that doesn’t try to stand out from the film, instead amplifying the filmmaking of the story. Beginning with a harp and some beautiful synth pads, Levi is inviting the audience into the film as much as Zola invites us into her story, before descending into the lurid tale with the addition of more artificial and darker synths and percussion that ratchets up the tension from scene to scene.
The ending and some storytelling choices may not be for everyone as it takes its cues from Twitter of strict storytelling brevity, cutting its story off like its author has to get back from their lunch break. Bravo makes a decision to cut off the film at the end of the trip with threads left to tie up, a decision that makes its conclusion feel abrupt in the context of a film, especially as the original twitter thread does have a sort of epilogue that I think would’ve translated well to the screen. But it has to be admired that Bravo set out to make this story about Zola’s trip to Tampa and not extending any further than that made sense, which I’m sure was the most difficult decision she had to make.
Zola opens nationally from tomorrow, the 18th of November 2021.
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