Are Tampa-core movies the new westerns?
As Zola hits the big screen today, we hone in on a new genre of film depicting the lawlessness of Florida, where spring break leads to murder and chaos.
This summer’s most talked about film is the very online Zola, a “mostly true” story about how A’Ziah (Zola) King befriended a fellow pole dancer in Detroit, who then invited her on a trip down to Florida where they could strip and make a quick buck. The real-life story was documented by King’s epic 148-tweet thread posted in 2015. And like almost all trips to Florida, this one goes horribly wrong.
Honouring its origins, the movie is adorned with literal bells and whistles reminiscent of vintage iPhone text tones. But aside from it being a movie about the World Wide Web, Zola is a perfect example of a new genre of film. It’s got all the violence and drama of a classic western movie, but it’s shot and written like a coming-of-age indie film.
When I finished watching Zola, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was exemplary of a certain type of film that I’d been noticing over the last few years. A sane person might just say “it has that Florida vibe“, but I asked Twitter what we could call it. Bikini noir? Miami Vice modern? Tampa-core seemed to be the one that resonated most.
A Tampa-core film is explicitly not Miami. It’s not fashion models with bottle service at hard-to-get-into clubs and five-star hotels. Rather, the Tampa-core film will feature the exterior of a motel, strip club or the occasional Publix (a chain of Florida convenience stores). There’s almost always at least one white character with a blaccent.
But what’s central to a Tampa-core film is the way it operates as a hyper-stylised vision of Florida. It’s as if the narrator’s time in Florida is being recalled in a haze of nostalgia. It doesn’t matter that the trip down South went, well, south.
“It’s supposed to feel like a dream of what spring break might be,” says Rachel Dainer-Best, a costume designer and Florida native who’s worked on a few Tampa-core films herself, including Waves (2019) and the canonical example of the genre, Spring Breakers (2012), on which she worked as a set costumer.
Stylistically, Tampa-core movies depict a dream-like surrealism. In Waves, you’re awoken from that dream halfway through and (no spoilers) the second act of the film feels like a different one altogether. In both Zola and Spring Breakers, the dream of having a good time in Florida turns into a nightmare.
The Florida Project and Moonlight are some other films that achieve this astral projection of the peninsula. It’s worth noting that all of the films I’ve mentioned so far were produced by A24. (I really wanted to call the genre A‑Twenty-Florida, but too many friends said it was corny.) It’s hard to say how much the studio itself had to do with these movies feeling closer to surrealism than to heist movies, but its presence is there nonetheless.
On Spring Breakers, for instance, the costuming was a perfect example of how filmmakers took the classic elements of a Florida vacation movie and elevated it to Tampa-core quality.
On the beach in St Petersburg, where much of Spring Breakers was shot, Dainer-Best says there was an abundance of neon swimwear being sold along the boardwalks. But the neon ski masks that became so recognisable to the movie? You couldn’t find them anywhere back in 2012.
“We had to buy all these white ski masks and have them dyed,” she recalls. “Of course, we wanted them to look like real college students on spring break, but we wanted to push it. We wanted it to feel not entirely realistic. Like, we shot them in so much neon swimwear. And they were wearing that all the time, because we wanted it to feel a bit exaggerated in that way.”
That phantasmagoric Florida vibe is what makes Tampa-core visually distinct and special. It’s got beach bums, but under bisexual lighting. The vibe is Girls Gone Wild if Girls Gone Wild had premiered at Sundance.
Dainer-Best says the most defining element of any Florida ‘fit is the sun itself, which radiates a heat so constant and all-encompassing that those under its rays can feel free to forego conventional rules of dressing.
“People just wear such skimpy, revealing clothing and it’s not a thing. It’s not inherently sexual or provocative,” she said. “It’s just so hot and you maybe just came from the beach.”
Maybe you can blame the sun for certain fashion decisions made on the peninsula, but the idea of breaking the rules in Florida was no accident.
After a brutal displacement of the Indigenous community there, settlers in Florida began to develop and promote the swampland as a tourists’ haven. Since its inception, Florida has been billed as this place where you could both see an alligator and shoot an alligator, providing you have a permit.
“These beaches became these destinations that people were able to, you know, basically do whatever they want – treat the land, treat the people however you want,” says Tyler Gillespie, author of The Thing About Florida. “And unless you get arrested, you can just go back home a week later and you don’t have to think about your impact on the environment and community.”
It’s no wonder alligators were an endangered species in the state for 20 years (1967 – 87).
The lawlessness of a Florida beach is like the Wild, Wild West except it’s in the South. Instead of the cowboy, we have Florida Man. Instead of saloons in smoky sepia, there are strip clubs drenched in lambent hot pink. Tampa-core films might just be the new westerns.