A cautionary tale for the fleet-fingered social media generation, “Zola” explodes off the screen in a burst of emoji confetti. It’s certainly the first major motion picture to come with a Twitter provenance, having been adapted from an epic 148-tweet thread posted by A’Ziah “Zola” King in October 2015. Profane, smart, funny, and scary, that thread told of a road trip that went south both geographically and otherwise, and the impishly talented director Janicza Bravo has brought the story to the screen with most of its ribald flavor intact. Beneath the film’s energy and body positivism, though, is a take on men and women, white and Black, exploiters and the exploited, that is both jaundiced and wise. The film opens June 30, in theaters.
Zola herself is played with easygoing confidence and sass by Taylour Paige; the character is a waitress and part-time stripper who gets an immediate girl-crush on Stefani (Riley Keough) when the latter turns up in a diner booth one day. They’re BFFs at first sight, and when Stefani invites Zola to hit the pole-dance circuit in Tampa with her, the latter kisses her boyfriend (A’riel Stechel) goodbye and straps in for the ride.
The first signs that something isn’t on the square are the women’s road companions. One is Stefani’s hapless boyfriend, Derrek, played with adenoidal earnestness and facial hair that verges on the tragic by Nicholas Braun, better known as Cousin Greg on HBO’s “Succession.” The other and more threatening figure is “X” (Colman Domingo), who at first seems to be acting as unspecified muscle but who is soon revealed to be Stefani’s pimp. And he’s expecting Zola to do more than lap dance.
The original thread — since deleted from Twitter but archived and easily found on the Internet — walked an extremely skillful line between the awfulness of Zola’s situation and its can-you-believe-this humor, and Bravo finds a glib, hyperactive visual style that effectively cinematizes it. It helps that Paige’s Zola is no pushover; left by X in a hotel suite with Stefani and a line of eager johns coming up the elevator, Zola takes charge and ups her friend’s pay rate and self-esteem. The comedy of “Zola” tangoes with the dread; a hilariously gross montage of male members is balanced with a queasy sequence in which the heroine accompanies her friend to an apartment filled with hulking men. Of course, Stefani has ceased to be any sort of friend at this point, and if we’re meant to cheer Zola’s nerve and quick thinking, her opposite number just seems sadder and meaner as the scenes roll on. Keough plays the character as a trashy, bubble-headed user and has a ball doing it; she nails the way America’s Stefanis co-opt Black slang and style in the service of shallow narcissism. Elvis’s granddaughter has his eyes, and she’s adept at making them go dead with entitlement. (Stefani does get her say in a richly satiric scene derived from the real character’s response, posted on Reddit, to Zola’s thread.)
Domingo is similarly a powerhouse as X, entwining exasperation and threat; I like how his Nigerian accent comes out only when he loses his cool. And Braun is consistently funny as a super-sensitive bro way in over his head. They’re all so colorful that you may not notice how firmly Paige is holding the film together with Zola’s strength and innate moral compass; she knows Zola owns her body and the story she’s telling. Bravo overdoes it with the bag of tricks — emojis popping out of the screen, characters breaking the fourth wall, a Twitter “warning-tweet” on the soundtrack that’s irritating the second time you hear it — and “Zola” doesn’t so much end as run out of gas. But the movie and its maker, the story it tells and the characters it showcases all represent something quite new in American movies. I’m not sure whether to cheer them on or head for the hills.
Directed by Janicza Bravo. Written by Bravo and Jeremy Harris, based on a tweet-storm by A’Ziah King. Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 86 minutes. R (strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence including a sexual assault).