Finally, a Film That Understands Social Media
The surreal, refreshing Zola posits that we use our digital personas to fool ourselves as much as to fool others.
When A’ziah King, a.k.a. Zola, a.k.a. @_zolarmoon, hit Send on the first of her 148 tweets about a trip to Florida gone wrong, Twitter was a different place. In 2015, users could publish only 140 characters at a time. A debate about the color of a dress could dominate the platform for a week. And a winding thread like King’s—about meeting a stripper named Jessica and accompanying her for a weekend of dancing that turns into a horror show involving a pimp and Jessica’s hapless boyfriend—felt like fresh material for a Hollywood adaptation.
King’s lengthy tale, which has been made into the movie Zola, went viral not just because of its ever-escalating twists, but also because of its author’s distinctive voice. Confident and cheeky, blunt but extravagant, King drew readers in with her first line: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” To the Zola co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, the tweets formed an “epic poem,” a rhythmic piece of literature that blurred the line between fact and fiction. King herself admitted to exaggerating certain elements to keep her audience interested: “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex-trafficking story want to be a part of it … because it was entertaining,” she told Rolling Stone in 2015.
Zola, out in theaters today, mirrors King’s embellishment, and in doing so captures the internet’s unique surreality as a storytelling platform. The film imitates the digital experience: The sound of a Twitter notification (chirp! chirp!) constantly interrupts conversations, and the screen blinks like a camera shutter when Stefani (played by Riley Keough), the film’s version of Jessica, snaps photos of herself and Zola (Taylour Paige). But Zola doesn’t just copy technical details; its flourishes capture the emotional sensation of being perpetually online. Over time, scenes feel more and more staged—kind of like an Instagram Story. Characters read texts aloud in monotone while the camera frames them in doorways and peers at them through glass. As a viewer, I felt hyperaware that I was watching a film occasionally arranged for maximum aesthetic appeal, as if I could reach out and double-tap my screen to “Like” what I was seeing.
Since the rise of social media, Hollywood has churned out several projects attempting to dissect our relationship with the internet, mostly through films such as Unfriended, Profile, and Searching. These movies unfold entirely on computer screens, toggling through apps, websites, and videochats, which leaves the viewer to reverse-engineer the narrative. By concentrating solely on characters’ digital personas, they depict the internet as an unregulated frontier rife with false identities and hidden agendas.
With Zola, however, the director Janicza Bravo has made a film that contends with the uneasy interplay between characters’ online and offline selves. And it posits that we use the internet to fool ourselves as much as to fool others. Over the course of the weekend, Zola intentionally distracts herself with her phone, making an otherwise terrifying and uncomfortable experience digestible—just like King did with her tweets. Long tracking shots follow Zola’s anxious gaze, but they end with her glib, scoffing voice-overs—lines taken from King’s thread. Late in the film, Zola appears to dissociate: In a motel room, surrounded by armed men while Stefani lies unconscious nearby, she closes her eyes and imagines, of all things, a screensaver. She can dull her discomfort, but she can’t fully escape. Eventually, the film feels like a fever dream, so highly stylized that distinguishing between Zola’s account of reality and what’s actually happening becomes hard.
That may sound like an unpleasant watch, especially following our year of Zoom fatigue and doomscrolling. But Zola is refreshing because it understands a common emotional dependence on the internet, even—or especially—in the face of fear and anxiety. Social media, the movie argues, gives all of us the illusion of control. King’s tweets led droves of readers to try to confirm their veracity even before she finished writing her thread, but she still got to reframe her story. In Zola, Stefani interrupts a scene to offer a completely different version of the events. (The real Jessica has similarly disputed King’s account.) And although six years have passed since King’s thread went viral, the internet’s pull has not faded, even as users have grown more skeptical of its benefits. Zola, with its ambiguous ending and peculiar tone, feels timeless in its intoxicating strangeness. Being online means being part of a chaotic abyss of conflicting half-truths, but it also means indulging in the ability to tell a story exactly the way you want to. There is a twisted comfort in turning anything, even trauma, into a digital anecdote.