Selah (Lovie Simone), the flinty queen bee at the core of Tayarisha Poe’s engrossing directorial debut, is a senior at an elite Pennsylvania boarding school. She’s an A-student and the head of the spirit squad, the envy and admiration of her classmates. She’s also a drug dealer, a role she occupies for the power that comes with it rather than the money — money being something that she and the majority of her classmates seem to have no shortage of. Power is the only currency worth caring about at Haldwell, which is technically run by the headmaster played by Jesse Williams but is in practice overseen by five cliques referred to by everyone as factions. Each faction oversees a different aspect of the student body’s underground economy, from gambling to cheating to parties to keeping the administration in the dark. The Spades run the illicit substances, and Selah runs the Spades, which means that she effectively runs the esteemed institution at which the film’s characters are enrolled.
Selah and the Spades is a welcome entry to the canon of films about high school as a battleground, one that stretches from the satirically anthropological stylings of Mean Girls to the supernaturally enhanced dramas of The Craft (the upcoming remake of which will star Simone). While its tony Pennsylvania prep school setting might bring to mind other rich-kid chronicles like Cruel Intentions, the film is closer in tone and spirit to Rian Johnson’s 2005 neo-noir Brick. Poe doesn’t superimpose hardboiled traditions over its teenage machinations the way Johnson does, but she treats her kiddie crime families with the same unironic seriousness her characters do. It’s not a mobster movie as told with prep school kids — it’s more like a movie intent on pointing out that mobsters are just teenagers who’ve grown up. The disloyal are excommunicated, the traitorous beaten. The first time newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) comes back from acting as an enforcer, her knuckles are bloody. “I didn’t realize it would hurt this bad,” she tells Selah, as exhilarated as she is shocked.
The increasingly tense relationship between Paloma and Selah, who’s eyeing the younger girl as a possible successor, forms the movie’s narrative spine. It’s no blessing being Selah’s protégé, not when her desire for legacy wars with her reflexive instinct to destroy anyone who threatens her dominance. Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah’s best friend, retains his place as second in command only by continued subservience, and even he attracts her ire when his focus drifts to a new relationship. Selah doesn’t harbor desire for either of her underlings. When it comes to dating, she tells Paloma, “I don’t do it. I never wanted to.” What she wants instead is an impossible kind of loyalty, and the whispers about a disappeared student named Tila indicate that she’s destroyed someone she’s taken under her wing before. Poe has the camera track Selah through the halls of the school or slowly close in on her face in a cluster of others at the gym, hinting at the turmoil underneath. Brief conversations with her demanding mother (Gina Torres) hint at Selah’s formative experiences, while distress over her college plans suggests a fear of leaving the ivy-covered walls of her high school kingdom behind.
Selah and the Spades ends just as it feels like it’s really picking up momentum, which is the major frustration of the film and also, likely, part of the reason it was picked up by Amazon both as a release and the basis for a possible series adaptation. Poe is just so skillful at filling out the quirks and ecosystems of Haldwell, with its party spots and faction headquarters and secret spaces — the trunk where the Spades keep their contraband, for instance, is lit inside like a giant keepsake box — that it’s hard not to want to explore more of this world. The film’s imagination sometimes outstrips its resources — especially, oddly, when it comes to the size of the membership of the Spades themselves — but it’s very good at portraying the school as an entrancing place; being there is akin to a scenic swim with sharks. The occasional intrusions of the real world, including an unseen errand to Fishtown in Philadelphia to resupply, feel like blasts of cold water to the face.
Race and class are never explicitly among those intrusions, for all that the movie teases its awareness with mentions of Paloma being in a scholarship and with the name Spades presumably chose for her entirely black crew — a card suit that’s also a slur. Within the school’s insular bubble, these things go otherwise unmentioned, which is either part of the film’s dreamlike stylization or a testament to the temporary leveling power of the privilege on display. It adds to the feeling of seductive insularity the film creates, a kind that you could see someone being reluctant to leave — especially when that also means surrendering a place on the throne.
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