Content Warning:This article contains description of sexual violence, abuse, and other themes that may be triggering to some readers. Your discretion is advised.
When I got invited to preview @Zola at the beginning of this summer, my first impulse was to re-watch the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads. Knowing what we know now about Britney Spears’ life – her father’s total and absolute control over her weight, her reproductive life, her schedule, her money – the film presents a dark, prescient experience. Crossroads, like @Zola share a place in the cannon of Southern Girl Roadtrip Films, and both explore trauma, dreams, and male control over women’s bodies.
In a small unnamed Georgia town three former friends Lucy (Spears), Kit (Zoe Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning) reunite on their high school graduation night to fulfill a promise they made to each other eight years prior, to dig up a time capsule to see how close they’ve come to achieving those wishes.
They dig up the box, and the eight-year-olds dreams come out. Kit wants to get married. Lucy wants to find the mother who has been missing all her life. Mimi, who is visibly pregnant, wants to travel, to go to California. She announces she’s leaving that Sunday, and is going to audition for a record deal. Kit and Lucy are scandalized at the idea of a pregnant Mimi traveling alone, so they agree to accompany her. Kit says she’ll visit her fiancée who is a student at UCLA, and Lucy will find her mother, who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Mimi recruits a boy from the trailer park with a car, Ben, and the journey begins.
After entering and winning a singing competition in a New Orleans bar to fund their trip, the girls find a hotel, and celebrate their win by raiding the minibar. Lucy and Kit apologetically mix drinks in front of Mimi, who says it’s fine, she wouldn’t drink anyway, and recounts the story of her pregnancy, which was date rape at a party over Christmas break. Kit discloses that the camp she went to every summer was a fat camp, and now that she is prettier than her mother, her mother resents and despises her. Lucy says she has no idea if her mother wants to see her or know her or love her. Ben confesses that his stint in jail was not for murder—as the town suspects—but on a kidnapping charge for driving his underage stepsister across state lines after she admitted their stepfather was violently abusing her. It’s a lot of heavy shit for a teen film, and yet it doesn’t feel forced or awkward.
Based on the infamous Twitter thread #TheStory and produced by A24, @Zola tells the Dadaist nightmare story of two girls on a ‘hoe trip’ to Florida gone wrong. I was thinking it would be more like Spring Breakers, another A24 film about some girls road tripping to Florida, and in a lot of ways it is. A’Ziah “Zola” King was at the screening I attended, having now relocated to Atlanta with her family, which is of course what you do if you are Black and are becoming successful. In her opening remarks, A’ziah said “Welcome to my trauma viewing party.”
Spread across one insanely chaotic weekend driving from Detroit to Tampa, Zola finds herself in ever more dangerous situations as the premise of the trip with Stefani becomes thinner and thinner. When Stefani’s boyfriend Derrick learns that Stefani has been ‘trapping’ (stripper language for prostitution) for the unnamed pimp that traveled with them, he becomes incensed and accuses Stefani of tricking girls into sex trafficking under the premise of making money at strip clubs again.
Although the film closely follows the events of the viral 148-tweet thread, the real horror of the story is missing, and this is where @Zola fails. Zola and Stefani are two 19-year-olds already fluent in the language of sex trafficking, prostitution, and violence. No one is going to mistake Riley Keough (Stefani) and Taylour Paige (Zola) for the naïfs of Crossroads. Stefani’s bad decisions lead to grotesque consequences, but they are presented as a woman’s bad decision. It also robs @Zola of what made the original thread so fun—Zola of the thread still has a young person’s absolute exuberance and surprise at what the world can be. Everything is still heightened, and everything is still “super gross” or “omgggg” or “screaming”. Of course Zola is going to go on that hoe trip after knowing Stefani for 24 hours, of course the Crossroads girls are going to get in a car with someone they don’t know to drive across the country for a shot at stardom. When you are nineteen, this all makes perfect sense.
There is a lot of money involved here, and a lot of men who control that money. And the way those men control that money is by the control of girls’ bodies.
Imagining what @Zola could have been if it had even mentioned what got them into that silver Mercedes is depressing. Because it would be forcing all of us to acknowledge the unimaginable trauma that must have happened for a 19-year-old girl to be regularly tricking other girls she meets at restaurants into sex trafficking. We would have to confront what happened to another teenage girl to give her the skills that allowed her to resist that same sex trafficking and escape (relatively) unscathed. It would be the truth, and just like how no one wanted to believe the truth of Britney Spears’ life that was happening right in front of our faces, we also don’t want the truth about the economy and danger of girls’ bodies.