NEW YORK – It’s not easy to put a finger on Janicza Bravo’s cinema. In describing her work, which now encompasses nine shorts and two feature films, including the new film “Zola,” you want to use words like surreal, disturbing, satirical, absurd, otherworldly.
“These are all very good, sexy words to me,” Bravo says, laughing.
“Zola,” which A24 will release in theaters Wednesday, is the most vivid look yet at the 40-year-old Bravo as an emergent filmmaker. The film, which first debuted back at Sundance in January 2020, is one of the most anticipated of the summer. It’s very possibly the first feature film adapted from a Twitter thread — an infamous, mostly true 148-tweet tale from 2015 in which A’Ziah “Zola” King unloaded about a Florida road trip to a strip club that goes harrowingly south.
In Bravo’s hands, the viral tweet storm is a “Wizard of Oz”-like fairy tale that turns nightmare — a hallucinogenic but clear-eyed adventure through sex work, social media, race and violence that’s both fantastical and darkly real. Comedy and horror intertwine. So do movies and the internet.
“I think it very much still is a ride,” says Bravo. “I just don’t know if it’s always a pleasant one.”
For even some of Bravo’s closest collaborators, explaining the feeling and style of Bravo’s disorienting, dreamlike movies can be tricky. Midway through making “Zola,” her production designer, Katie Byron, turned to her and asked if Bravo had done a lot of ketamine.
“I’m unfortunately a little straight edge,” says Bravo. “I’m just very attracted to creating work that feels a little larger than life. It’s just next to it. It’s something kind of familiar but we go to 11.”
Bravo’s “life at high volume” filmmaking has drawn widespread admirers. Her second short, 2013’s “Gregory Goes Boom,” starred Michael Cera as an embittered paraplegic. Jeremy O. Harris, the “Slave Play” playwright, happened to see it at Sundance and fell in love with it. At the time, he figured Bravo, from her name, was Polish. Bravo was, in fact, born in New York but raised in Panama before moving to Brooklyn when she was 12. Her parents were both tailors, a source of Bravo’s stylishness.
“The thing that I loved about that film then and about all of her films since is that she has this very sly, chaotic way of dealing with the darkest truths of American history while making you laugh throughout it,” Harris said while nursing a hangover and picking up smoothies after a celebratory “Zola” screening in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Harris became friends with Bravo about seven years ago. When the possibility of making “Zola” came up, Bravo asked him to write it with her. For Harris, “Zola” represents more than your average Hollywood breakthrough.
“This is a moment of profound catching up,” says Harris. “The work that she’s been doing has been so consist that I think people didn’t have a Rosetta Stone for the language she was speaking in. We’re not used to hearing a Black woman speak in languages this complex inside independent cinema.”
“Zola” was originally set up with James Franco directing. That version of the film, the filmmakers say, was a more carefree romp. Bravo and Harris approached King’s Twitter thread — a colorfully told, often funny tale that brought phrases like “vibing over our hoeism” into the lexicon — with more reverence. To Bravo and Harris, the thread was a modern-day Homeric epic. They wanted to ground the film in Zola’s perspective and capture the way Black women can be treated as disposable, and the traumatic fallout of white appropriation of Blackness.
“When Janicza came on board, it became more about my voice,” says King, who’s an executive producer on the film. Her tweets have been published in a cloth-bound hardcover.
In the film, Zola (played by Taylour Paige) is a Detroit waitress whose newfound friend, a customer she waits on, Stefani (Riley Keough), urges her to come along on a weekend in Florida to party and make money stripping. Keough plays Stefani as mimicking Zola by immediately adopting her mannerisms and phrases. For Harris, it’s a kind of blackface without the makeup; one scene he compares to Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” We watch as Stefani drags Zola into a hellish situation.
“Zola” turns the camera around on whiteness. It's a theme found throughout Bravo’s work, including her previous feature “Lemon” (about an aggressively unappealing failed actor, made with ex-husband and frequent collaborator Brett Gelman); and a series she’s currently developing with Jake Gyllenhaal as Dan Mallory, pen name A.J. Finn, the bestselling novelist who was found to have fabricated a brain tumor and a tragic past for himself. For Bravo, whiteness is often treated as invisible and neutral. Her experience is the opposite.
“I wanted to be in conversation with whiteness and I wanted to talk to that because I hadn’t really seen anyone doing that, especially in comedy,” says Bravo. “Usually when things were about race, they were explicitly about race. And I am interested about folding race into my everyday circumstance. That is how it for me. It’s my own processing of feeling limited or feeling less than and what it is to wear this skin and wear this body.”
But “Zola” — still a ride, remember — cloaks its thoughtful mediations. Throughout the movie, whenever a bit of dialogue matches King’s tweets, a Twitter ding sounds like slot-machine chimes. It’s a touch King considers “priceless.”
“When I watch the film, it’s kind of a time-traveling moment. It’s like I suddenly forget where I am and I’m back in 2015. She really paints that image,” says King. “The movie, it feels like Twitter. I don’t know how to explain that, but it does. From the quotes to the chimes to the lighting, it feels like you’re in the internet.”
Whether because of her identity, international childhood or artistic instincts, Bravo's knack for making the familiar seem foreign seems perfectly matched for “Zola,” a movie with one foot in real life and another in a strange, ethereal digital reality. The movie, she says, is a love letter to the story’s birthplace: the internet.
“Why it was being made was because the internet said it had to be,” says Bravo. “It was this kind of theater event in October of 2015. This audience showed up to it and they clamored and they catapulted it. And that day ended with the period of: This has to be made into a movie. And then it was.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP