Selah and the Spades is a film about a private high school where the illicit activities that go on at every high school are closely regulated by five factions, each with their own piece of the pie. When new scholarship student Paloma is befriended by Selah, the head of the Spades, the group that controls the illegal substance market, she's brought in and taught the business. Paloma's being groomed for the top spot next year. Though, Selah doesn't tell Paloma everything and a secret from the past will come back to haunt Selah and Paloma's budding friendship. The film stars Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome, Celeste O'Connor, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Evan Roe, Francesca Noel, Henry Hunter Hall, Nekhebet Kum Juch, Jesse Williams, and Gina Torres. It is written and directed by Tayarisha Poe. It is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.
I'm a sucker for a high school movie. Maybe because nothing overly dramatic or exciting happened to me in high school. Yet, what I love more than a high school movie, is a high school movie that adds in some genre trappings. I would put Selah and the Spades firmly in the same camp as Rian Johnson's debut feature, the noir detective high school film Brick. Selah and the Spades brings the same energy with its cliques as mafia families aesthetic.
I love the level of detail about which clique does what for the student body and how it all is a fine ecosystem that teeters on the edge of collapsing because they're just high school students. The history and depth of the backstory comes out in Tayarisha Poe's script. She has that ear for the genre codes and the ideas to make them work inside of a high school setting because despite their powers, these factions are teenagers and teenagers lack true outside power.
Those are the scenes where I think the film shines brightest. Selah is the queen of Haldwell Hall, but she still has to contend with her overbearing mother. In one phone conversation with her mother, Selah gives the news that she scored a 93% on her last test and the response is, "Where did the other seven points go?" In another scene, the dance team Selah leads is practicing their routine with Paloma taking photos. Selah explains what it's like to be a seventeen year old girl. She tells of the lack of power and how she has come to empower herself. It's done very dreamily with many faces looking directly at the camera, a technique often employed by Poe and cinematographer Jomo Fray.
Though, I feel the film languishes in the dreaminess a few too many times. It becomes a crutch to cut to a face that has nothing to do with the next scene. It also makes one wonder if these students are such high achievers, how come they're not in class? That last question can be explained away by limited budget, but with the amount of students we see and the power we're told is wielded by Selah and the Spades, we never see a large crew. We never see Selah with more than one or two people around her. If the film were to lean into the mafia angle fully, it should have been a priority to keep the Spades as well staffed as the other factions. Yet, these are really nitpicks about a film that is good and has a lot of great acting behind it.
No other actors are as entrancing as the breakout, Lovie Simone, though. There are so many close ups of her that she beautifully imbues with emotional moments. We feel her frustration at not being good enough for her mother's expectations. We want her to love us and bathe us in the radiance of her aura because she has this power on screen. She pulls us in with every frame and we actually feel for her because she helps flip the script on the idea of queen bees in high school movies. It's a star making turn in what will hopefully be a long career.
There were a few scenes and storylines I wasn't a fan of, a couple of camera techniques that fell flat, and a bunch of other things I could nitpick, but really, the film has a gorgeous and dreamy quality that can't be overlooked. For a first feature, Tayarisha Poe has shown her immense potential. Were she given a bigger budget, she could give us something truly marvelous to see. It's well worth your time and energy to seek it out.