The Mica Levi score on this is phenomenal. I keep thinking about it. It’s not ambient the way Brian Eno is ambient, and yet there is something of Eno in it, I feel. She took the sounds of apps and basketballs, chirps and thumps and haptics, and composed this sparkling and spare and eerie ass soundscape from it. There’s no motif you’ll be humming later, even though the sound is kind of perpetual, this texture woven into the storytelling. This is a different movie without it, like Under the Skin is a different movie without her score for it.
And you know what, I think they’re both horror movies! Possibly! One of my favorite questions to ask people is how they define horror, as everyone so far has told me something different. Zola does not traffic in gore or jump scares or other hallmarks of a slasher, nor does it involve supernatural elements like monsters or spells. It can be tense, surprising, gross, but lots of movies can be those things that no one would call horror films.
What Zola does seem to have though, is an element that one of my friends named as his personal metric: for him, horror is about being hunted. Zola the character is not being stalked down by a killer or a beastie or her own ghosts, but she is quite literally just trying to make it through this weekend alive. The various dangers imperiling her are sometimes extremely overt, and other times insidious and shifty, but always present. That’s where dread lives, I feel, in that mystery of where exactly the threat lies.
Of course, we know she does manage to traverse this seamy Florida horrorshow, as she lived to Tweet the tale. Everyone seems pretty comfortable calling this the first movie based on a Twitter thread, and I can’t think of what else would be, so looks like we’ve got history here, folks! The original Tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015 are funny and shocking and familiar, with a sort of musical cadence of someone telling a riotous story to some friends at a bar and soon they’re holding court over the whole room, playing bigger and badder to reach the back of their gathering audience. King has an executive producer credit on the film, although for licensing issues it is technically listed as an adaptation of a subsequent Rolling Stone article about what was being called simply #TheStory.
But director Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of #TheStory, cowritten by playwright Jeremy O. Harris of Broadway’s Slave Play fame, is something a bit different from the Tweets and article both. Even in the rollicking way the original Zola first told it, the events of this ill-fated Hoe Trip were always pretty uneasy and gruesome, with manipulation in seedy hotels on the mildest end to straight up sex trafficking at the roughest. In depicting the Story as it was actually happening to Zola in the moment, not her punchy retelling of it later, Bravo has made a movie largely about the experience of witnessing more so than the act of storytelling—and how going through much of anything as a Black woman is an experience of survival.
The fellow Black character of X may provide the bulk of the most salient menace, but it is the “white nightmare” of Stefani that is absolutely the most indelible bogeyman of the piece, reflected up on our movie screens in all her baby-haired, AAVE glory through Taylour Paige’s incredible emotive eyes, almost movie screens of their own. We see Stefani because Zola sees Stefani, and although Riley Keough pronounces her a demon, albeit a complicated one, forthright Zola never actually goes that far, landing on the honestly probably more trenchant judgement of, “This is messy—YOU are messy.” Because it’s hard to tell where Stefani comes from, how much of the way she is is simply her and how much is the product of her objectively shitty circumstances, our objectively shitty world. Still, like hell is Zola going to sacrifice her own safety for this unhinged white woman who has dragged her into this micro-world of madness, and nor should she! As Jordan Peele slapped on every poster, GET OUT.
I will say I think this movie’s choice (?) to have an oddly unsatisfying ending is not really a good one, given that King’s original Tweets had an ending right there with a) some of the best lines, and b) gave us exactly the kind of coda we wanted and needed, so, why not? What was going on here? And there were some other choices throughout that I also think were just not as successful as they could have been. But, I like that this movie exists, I like that the real Zola got so much credit, I like that Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris got to adapt it and that they tried shit, I like that score, and I like that A24 doesn’t give a fuck and WILL just keep making Elevated Florida movies for as long as they are to be had.