DIRECTED BY: Tayarisha Poe
STARRING: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Henry Hunter Hall, Benjamin Breault, Evan Roe, Cody Sloan, Nekhebet Kum Juch and Rae Bell
Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.
Paloma, the new girl at an esteemed prep school, is drawn into the daily aggressions of warring senior class factions. She joins the Spades and becomes friends with the Spades’ leader, an enigmatic and scheming cheerleader named Selah.
Selah and the Spades marks the directorial feature debut of Tayarisha Poe that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year and this weekend it arrived on Amazon Prime. Set at the Haldwell boarding school in Pennsylvania, where the student body is run by five factions. The top faction on campus is the Spades, run by Selah Summers with her right-hand man Maxxie Ayoade. We meet Paloma Davis, a sophmore that’s recently transferred to Haldwell that likes photography and soon becomes friends with Selah and is drawn into the daily dramas of the senior factions.
One detail that I found interesting looking in to this film was that Tayarisha Poe had also worked on the underrated 2015 indie drama The Fits as a still photographer, which is funny because I felt similarities between the two films in how Poe frames the shots, particularly in how the Spirit Squad sequences mirror that of the dance team in The Fits. The film is well directed, moody yet stylish with some lovely cinematography by Jomo Fray, and with Poe also penning the screenplay, it’s sharp-witted in terms of dialogue as well as focusing on the friendship between Spades leader Selah Summers and Haldwell newbie Paloma Davis. While Maxxie seems to be taking his eye off the ball in regards to Spades duties by getting into a relationship with Spirit Squad member Nuri, Selah is having more issue in finding someone to takeover the group after her graduation, as it could either lose its power to one of the rival factions or dissolve entirely. So when Selah sees potential in Paloma, we see Selah’s intimidation and physical techniques that have earned her respect and power from her fellow students and when Paloma believes to have it figured out, we witness Selah’s more envious and destructive side. It’s the friendship that brings the best out of Poe’s material as well as the performances from Lovie Simone and Celeste O’Connor, highlighting their insecurities and difference in styles of leadership that comes to a head in the films climax. Lovie Simone gives a strong lead performance as Selah Summers, a self-made, confident figure that we get to see some vulnerably from as get a brief glimpse into her personal life when she interacts with her mother Maybelle. Celeste O’Connor gives just an equally impressive performance as Paloma Davis, a shy figure that’s immediately drawn into the drama on campus that Selah tries to mould in her image and while she has some moments of naivety, she’s not afraid to question Selah’s motivations and aware of the consequences that could arise moving forward. The supporting ensemble are good here as well, with Jharrel Jerome continuing his impressive range of performances here as Maxxie Ayoade, a pivotal Spades member that seemingly likes to be involved yet seems to have outgrown the drama that comes with the factions. Ana Mulvoy-Ten is good also as Bobby, Selah’s main rival that one her reasoning for gunning Selah all the time brings new light to her character.
While the film works on a technical level and the dialogue is sharp-witted, the film could be argued to being all style and little substance, as there’s some great ideas sprinkled around Selah and the Spades, but I don’t feel like some of it worked to the films advantage. While we get a glimpse into the factions with its narrative exposition in the films opening, outside of Selah, Maxxie, Bobby and Tarit, the rest aren’t developed or given much screentime and in regards to the Spades being the most powerful faction of campus, outside of them handling the drugs to fellow students, the members of the faction itself are very underused here. There’s certain characters that appear with promise but don’t really have much to add to the overall arc of the story, particularly that of Jesse Williams’s role as Headmaster Banton, with him and Gina Torres as Selah’s mother being both underused. It’s believed that Selah and the Spades acquisition by Amazon comes along with a potential series adaptation tag on it and in that regard it makes sense, As Poe has created a rich, intriguing world within the confined space of Haldwell as there’s plenty to explore further in what an hour-and-forty minute feature just couldn’t quite capture.
There’s a lot to admire about Selah and the Spades, from its atmospheric and stylish look , to it’s performances from Lovie Simone and Celeste O’Connor, while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, I can definitely see this coming a cult classic within the High School film genre. Tayarisha Poe definitely has an eye and a voice that has me looking forward to seeing what she brings out next.