Duplicities July 6, 2021
On Zola and False Positive
ost people are well-familiar with walking into a movie based on a book, play, or even article that meant something to them and worrying about
how true this adaptation would stay to its source material. One walks into Zola, co-written (with Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris) and directed by Janicza Bravo, feeling something at once similar to that experience and foreign from it. The film is not based on a book or a play but, incredibly, 148 tweets published in quick succession — and to unexpected virality — in the fall of 2015 by then-stripper Aziah “Zola” King. (The movie is technically also based on an article — a follow-up Rolling Stone dispatch from David Kushner — though it doesn’t feel quite right to say that Zola is an adaptation of a magazine piece, since it mostly just adds a few more shades to King’s account.) I don’t remember reading King’s tweets when they originally set the
social-media platform alight six years ago — I wasn’t on Twitter, which was still beholden to 140 characters at the time, much then. But I eventually became privy to the story King told: an at-once very funny but also often scary tale that was fundamentally about its then-20-year-old subject’s brush with sex trafficking during a hasty trip to Florida with a new friend.
Ahead of watching Zola, which dramatizes King’s indelible tweets, one might hope for two things in particular: that the movie gives justice to King’s by turns sobered and memorably amusing writerly voice; that it, without too much embellishment, complement rather than eclipse or obfuscate what had made this tweeted Homeric so vivid in the first place. The movie — among the best and most dynamic films of the year so far (though it did technically premiere in January, 2020, at the Sundance Film Festival) — winds up ticking off boxes beyond base-level expectations. It formidably mixes imaginative style, spirited comedy, and exuberant performances, all while never obscuring the point of view of its lead or minimizing the underlying graveness of its subject matter.
Zola begins the same way the thread did: with its author asking her audience, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long but full of suspense.” On Twitter, King posted alongside the question a quartet of low-res selfies with that ex-pal, Jessica Swiatkowski. In the movie, King, who is played by Taylour Paige and who I’ll call Zola for the rest of the review to differentiate her from the real person, offers the question while standing next to Jessica’s cinematic equivalent, Stefani (Riley Keough). They’re idly applying makeup in a roomful of mirrors, a whirl of harp playing dreamily in the background. (Stefani, apparently, cannot hear Zola, even though the latter doesn’t seem to be breaking the fourth wall, exactly.) The remainder of the movie takes place in flashback. This brief prologue ingeniously sets up two of the film’s trademarks so that we’re not jarred later on: tweets-as-voiceover; a tendency, by Bravo, to insert quasi-fantasy sequences in certain sections of the film to both expand on King’s sense of humor and give us an impression of how her memory has redefined certain aspects of the story with time.
Like with King’s thread, the flashbacks begin with the serendipitous meeting between the two soon-to-be-ex-friends: at the Hooters-style diner where King waitresses and where Stefani is a customer that day. The women immediately hit it off; their relationship begins when Stefani boldly compliments Zola’s breasts, evolving from there as the women bond over sex work. (Zola, who is Black, strips in the evening; she likes Stefani, who is white, enough to forgive the latter’s obnoxiously put-on blaccent and other appropriated affectations.) The film aestheticizes the flush of new friendship with a flutter of on-screen heart emojis and a symphony of arcade color. It makes you think about how many times you’ve met someone and know (or think you know) almost immediately that you’re going to be good friends. Time knowing them be damned.
Only a day later, Stefani is asking Zola if she’d be interested in going with her to Tampa (they’re currently in Detroit) to earn some extra money at a handful of strip clubs. Stefani’s boyfriend and roommate will tag along. It’s an audacious invitation, but Zola impulsively accepts. Even one unfamiliar with King’s original thread can infer the moment Zola gets in the car that this trip will not exactly be what Stefani has sold it as. The boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), a nervous wreck in caricatured white-rapper attire, is openly uneasy about the journey — like there’s something he wants to say but is too afraid to. And the “roommate,” whom Zola will not learn the name of for a couple of days but whom the movie’s credits list as X (Colman Domingo), is so gruff and almost managerial that intuition alone proves that the role Stefani has designated him is, if not entirely a fabrication, a stretch. The first act or so of the movie — before Florida becomes Zola and co.’s temporary home — is its most playful. Everyone seems to be having great fun reaping the humor from the odd interplay between this group of pretty-much strangers, where the players are feigning overfamiliar friendliness while all clearly having miles-different perspectives and varying knowledge about what exactly this trip is going to entail.
The further we plunge into this misadventure — which, spoiler alert, eventually reveals that X is actually Stefani’s pimp, and that Stefani had essentially lured Zola (though it’s unclear how much this was a factor of coercion by X) to participate with her in more than just stripping — the darker Zola becomes. Though it never loses its undercurrent of vague, subtly funny is-this-really-happening-to-me surreality. Certain exaggerated visual details evocatively hit us in a way that suggests a particular thing continues to stick out in King’s mind all these years later: the imposing largeness of a Confederate flag that greets the group as they enter Tampa; the thud of a basketball being tossed between friends on the second floor as the quartet enters their sordid first-floor motel; the demonic gleam of X’s right eye as he intimidates Zola by the pool by afternoon; a little person lazing on a beach lounger Zola runs past as she’s being pursued; a humorous montage of johns’ penises presented to us as if we were scrolling down an Instagram Explore page.
Zola concurrently brings to mind documentary filmmaking in how bluntly many of its images hit us and fantasy in how some of those images have a sensorial amplification that takes them slightly outside of reality. (Everything, after all, is taking place in a flashback, with one woman’s remembrances taking precedence; the film gets inside Zola’s head enough so that, in one moment, when she’s dissociating during a particularly stressful confrontation, her brain turns on screen into a Dell computer screen-saver.) Bravo has said in interviews that she wanted the movie to meet at an intersection between Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (2017) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) — a description difficult to picture until you’ve watched the movie. That is to also say that Zola is swaggeringly stylish but also a little antic — like the uncanny, glittery iterations of “reality” we see particularly on venues like Instagram.
The performances are roundly well-conceived. (Keough especially succeeds in what might be the most difficult part: a figure meant to be loathsome, sympathetic, and cringe-funny oftentimes at once.) But Zola undoubtedly soars as much as it does because of Paige, terrific as a young woman shrewdly improvising her way through a hellacious weekend, freaking out inside but maintaining impressive exterior cool. Zola is living a nightmare; Paige, with sometimes breathtakingly funny deadpan, articulates someone scared for her life who also, as her Twitter recollections would reveal, was ultra-aware of how much of that fear was enmeshed in utter absurdity. When the soon-to-be-published tweets interrupt the action in voiceover, they simultaneously help further develop Zola’s purview and remind us how easily the epigrammatic, humor-favoring Twitter format can provide a very tense situation a levity that might muddle for a reader just how serious things were in real time for the people doing the recounting.
Oddly for a movie so rhythmic — it has a real vitality — Zola ends too abruptly. It abandons the satisfying conclusion of the thread (in which King offered something of an epilogue detailing what became of X specifically) entirely. One could argue that this abruptness gets at something about how jarringly life itself can swerve from action-packed to mundane, the quickness with which virality on Twitter arrives and then goes dormant before you can adequately digest what has happened. But I think it in addition to being unsatisfying also accentuates other places we wish the movie would expand on: Zola’s relationship with her boyfriend and her life more broadly before Stefani entered it; the aftermath of the thread in general. (Swiatkowski in particular faced a great deal of harassment, inarguably because of the contempt with which society predominantly treats sex workers.) Zola is certainly a lucid dramatization of the thread. Yet I couldn’t help but want it to, as its own entity, further examine the surrounding context in a way a viral Twitter story can’t as much to additionally vivify these people and the circumstances in which they collectively find themselves. Still, I found Zola largely emphatic and inventive — a commingling of several fresh, vital voices (Paige, Bravo, Harris, and King) that invigorates in spite of its shortcomings.
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in Zola.
alse Positive, a new joint effort from Ilana Glazer (Broad City) and John Lee, is something like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for the Instagram age — a spooky tale about a probably-malevolent pregnancy
with modern nods to mommy bloggers, IVF, and the internet as a force to exacerbate, rather than soothe, one’s fears. But while its conceit is an interesting one, False Positive, which operates at the pitch of a horror comedy with an unusually understated sense of humor, doesn’t especially rise above being, simply, an intriguing idea. It’s never exactly scary. Lee, though capable behind the camera, doesn’t do much to create the unnerving sense of increasingly suffocating claustrophobia required to make a film with this narrative satisfactorily chill us. And False Positive only glancingly, rather than meaningfully, gleans its comedy typically from the personality types (particularly those of ostensibly feminist men) familiar in the affluent, white liberal milieu its main character inhabits. False Positive doesn’t have the feeling of a bad movie — more one that does a lot of competent gesturing to its influences without doing anything especially fresh itself outside of making topical allusions.
Glazer inhabits the Rosemary role. She’s a woman named Lucy who, at the beginning of the movie, goes with her husband Adrian (an excessively aloof Justin Theroux) to an in-demand fertility doctor, Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), to try to up their pregnancy chances after two unsuccessful years of attempting conception. Hindle quickly lives up to his reputation. It isn’t long before Lucy is pregnant, thanks to the mysterious insemination technique on which he built his name. But Hindle’s methods prove perhaps too effective: it’s discovered that Lucy is carrying both twin boys and a girl. Hindle recommends selective reduction — a process that will require Lucy to choose to terminate either her boys or the girl to ensure a smooth pregnancy.
Around the time she concludes that she’s going to keep the girl, whom she has already named Wendy, Lucy starts speculating that there is something nefarious going on not just with Hindle, but her husband. (His friendship with the doctor was the main reason the couple could skip the waitlist that has followed Hindle ever since he started his practice.) Our own alarm bells had been going off even before Lucy began to fear the worst. Hindle’s silvery friendliness calls to mind a supervillain on his best behavior, and his unwillingness to divulge much about his methods is shady at best. (Brosnan, clearly reveling in his character’s vaguely sinister benevolence, is the best thing about the movie, though Glazer is quite good too in a rare straight dramatic turn.)
Inevitably, Lucy’s fears will be vindicated, though not in the shockingly supernatural sense made infamous by Rosemary’s Baby. But even the film’s climax, bloody and cathartic, keeps up the underwhelming too-tidiness of the rest of the movie. It feels listlessly paint-by-numbers, only differentiated for its 21st-century updates (like, for one thing, the protagonist being professionally enterprising rather than a young and naïve housewife) and its clinical-to-the-point-of-being-uninvolving visual style. If False Positive does one thing well, it’s its way of straightforwardly depicting how scary a thing it is, especially as a woman, to place your well-being in the hands of people who more than likely don’t have your best interests top of mind. But any other intriguing invocations of larger social concerns in False Positive are stifled by the blandness of both its horror and attempts at satire.
False Positive: C