How ‘Zola’ Brilliantly Captures The Essence Of The Internet
It's rare that a film about the internet actually captures the internet successfully.
Zola is fascinated by the glittery sheen of a mirror. The new film from Janicza Bravo opens with its two leads, Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), in an angled, reflective room, silently adjusting their appearances. Later, they strut down a hall of mirrors, replicated in fragments before disappearing around a corner.
There are many ways to tell a story, Bravo seems to say, with countless players and performances. You’re bound to get lost; to see something real in what is only a reflection.
In one sequence, Zola observes herself in a multi-panelled mirror, cycling through costumes as she decides who to be for the evening; in another she stands with her back to a reflective wall while talking to Stefani, whose face becomes doubled, hemming her in on both sides.
This motif, emphasising image and deception, is apt for the first film to be adapted from a Twitter thread. Social media is, after all, where we go to watch competing versions of reality play out.
In October 2015, A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King tweeted a viral thread about a customer she met while waitressing in Detroit and agreed to accompany on a trip to make easy money dancing in Tampa strip clubs. In 148 tweets, King described an ordeal far messier than she’d expected, a startlingly violent odyssey through Florida’s underbelly.
Now, six years later, it’s the first film to be adapted from a Twitter thread, scripted by Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris. Paige is well-cast as the titular Zola, with Keough as her seemingly-harmless-but-not-really customer, Stefani. The core cast is completed by Stefani’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and pimp (Colman Domingo), who join the dancers on their trip.
Thankfully, Zola doesn’t shy away from its online roots. The opening line is the now-iconic first sentence of King’s thread: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” The suspense in King’s thread is communicated through choice capitalisation and punctuation; in Zola, it’s produced more subtly through image and atmosphere.
The persistent bounce of a basketball in a scene’s periphery, tensely mimicking a heartbeat. A lingering shot of a confederate flag, warning our protagonist she’ll never be entirely safe where they’re going. A hotel TV playing footage of cars stuck in mud — funny, until the sinking feeling sets in.
King’s tweets are peppered throughout the film, creating a distinction between how stories are told online and how it feels to experience them. Refracted through her internet persona, Zola becomes a witty spectator to a comically hellish weekend. But in reality, shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner’s hazy 16mm camera, Paige’s performance is far more reserved. Sitting silently in backseats, or with her back turned to an exchange she’d rather not watch, Zola isn’t amused.
Because the film adheres so staunchly to Zola’s dual modes, the stakes beyond her immediate perception are sometimes unclear. Domingo is fantastic at every turn, but his character’s goals and motivations are never fleshed out enough to get a sense of his scheme’s true nature or scale. At times, the same can be said for Stefani. The opacity of certain players and their position in the story, unguided by King’s consistently raucous voice, strips certain moments of their impact.
Bravo embraces Zola’s origin as an internet artefact without trading substance for gimmick.
Zola deserves praise, however, for its rare, successful visualisation of the internet. It doesn’t try to live in some slick, clearly delineated cyberspace. Instead, we find a fully embodied, physical world inextricable from the internet that informs it, spilling over into how characters talk and behave.
See, for instance, Stefani’s uncomfortable use of ‘blaccent’ and certain slang terms, conjuring the widespread adoption of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in online spaces by non-Black users. Or, more innocuously, how she declares ‘I’m dying’ in response to a funny video.
The film can be described as ‘terminally online’ in a way that miraculously, given how fast online discourse moves, never appears dated. The stylistic flairs are all there: the whooshes of Tweets and messages sent, text chimes blending into Mica Levi’s dazzling score, a montage that moves like swiping through your newsfeed.
Bravo replicates the look of an iPhone clock display and volume slider, and dispenses with continuity editing to play with freeze frames and repeat cuts. By embracing a slippage between virtual and realist aesthetics, Bravo embraces Zola’s origin as an internet artefact without trading substance for gimmick.
The Rise Of The Internet Film
In the broader landscape of internet movies, some entrants are similarly generous in their depictions, while others tend more towards crude moralising. Nevertheless, common themes recur: an increased impetus towards documentation, an awareness of almost constant visibility, and attempts to wield that visibility in certain ways.
Instant feedback received from an online public eggs protagonists on — occasionally to horrific degrees. Narratives weave between various platforms and can play out entirely through a single screen — like Searching, a member of the wider desktop cinema canon.
In the past five years, we’ve seen an emergence of influencer movies, which interrogate ideas of authenticity and quantified worth (Ingrid Goes West, Sweat, Mainstream). While some express sincere interest in how it feels to be embedded in cyber worlds, others assume a more didactic tone. There’s something paradoxical, for example, about a character in Mainstream vomiting emojis as a metaphor for purging themselves of the internet’s artifice when the film itself engages only superficially with our relationships to the web.
In more nuanced films like Cam, Jezebel, and PVT Chat, which show women navigating the world of online sex work, entire relationships play out through webcams. Characters perform heightened versions of themselves as a form of labour, engaging in live chats with strangers. Their mediated identities are never totally distinct from their personal lives, and often, tension stems from a collapse between these spaces, threatening characters’ control over their personas.
The people using them are situated in a tangible reality. There’s no here and there, just an unfixed set of relations.
As a sub-genre, these movies reflect the fact that, as Cynthia X. Hua once wrote, “our experience of social reality is refracted among the media we use to connect with each other; no one of us can claim objectivity, or ignore the experiences of others.”
Much has been said about the difficulties filmmakers face when trying to represent virtual activity on screen, particularly the authenticity of texting. Often, texts are displayed either hovering beside people’s heads or as subtitles. Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Wobble Palace opts for the whole device, devoting one half of the frame to characters’ phone screens. As they text and scroll, we see what they see, witnessing two visualisations of one moment.
Zola, instead, sees characters perform their messages out loud, emojis and all. Their online voices blend into their speaking ones; the language of one realm is not restricted but bursts forth, enabling emphasis on the actors’ performances — their physical bodies and emotions indistinct from their virtual behaviours. This technique pays attention to the fact that while the displays on our devices are seemingly flat, the people using them are situated in a tangible reality. There’s no here and there, just an unfixed set of relations.
After all, what does the internet really look like? We give so much of our lives and data to these networks, but many of us don’t know how they work, who controls them, or what lies on the other end. An amorphous, murky thing, the internet becomes vindictive and spectral in films like Pulse and Unfriended, where being hacked is akin to being haunted.
Though these genre exercises compellingly interrogate the complexities of our networked lives, the films that feel most accurate to the experience of using the internet are those that temper ambiguity with curiosity.
Another 2021 release, We’re all Going to the World’s Fair, follows a teenage girl’s experience with a dark internet trend. The film explores the sense of getting lost in algorithmic logic, turning the internet into an unreal dreamspace where concepts of identity and dysphoria are negotiated. In 2018, Eighth Grade brilliantly captured how it feels to retreat into online performance as a means of self-discovery.
Zola is not about the internet, yet it employs it as a way of thinking, speaking, and seeing. When done well, this is the kind of film that can be made from online narratives — the unique perspectives offered by people who, through social media, are granted the agency to relay their own experiences. Rather than taking the internet itself as its subject, Bravo’s film asks what a story told from and flexibly across online spaces might look, sound, and feel like.
A moment towards the end of Zola illustrates how digital worlds shape the texture of our thoughts and feelings. In a particularly dire scene, Zola sits on a bed in an unfamiliar hotel room. The screen dissolves into a MacBook-like screensaver, immediately recognisable: a multicoloured starfish-shaped object, its limbs moving fluidly against a dark background.
Longing to disappear from her perilous environment, we watch Zola disassociate into this familiar rendering. The virtual void resonates, somehow, deep in her body.
Tiia Kelly is a freelance film writer from Melbourne with bylines in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Overland, Screen Queens, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter.