There have been many high school movies over the years, but few bottle the stylish formula of Selah and The Spades. Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature dissects the anatomy of a wealthy boarding school in Pennsylvania, via the student-run factions that govern it – but zooms in on the woozy details that make people tick within each clique.
There’s traces of classic teen flicks Gossip Girl, Heathers and Mean Girls in this visually arresting drama, but its cast are refreshingly diverse for the genre. The film focuses on Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), leader of the most powerful faction, The Spades. They sell drugs to everyone on campus, from a trunk covered in twinkling lights that looks like a fairytale tuck shop. As she approaches graduation, Selah is coming to terms with the end of her reign and is on the lookout for a successor. When junior Paloma takes her photo, Selah thinks she’s finally found the protégé she’d been looking for.
Power is everything in this world – a tiny universe entirely detached from reality, one that’s easy to lose yourself in. It’s designed with an impeccable, preppy fashion sense in mind – sleek hair, barely-there makeup and all. The drug deals that pepper proceedings aren’t messy or even that dangerous. Business is business – and what matters is reputation. How people use and experience what they’ve purchased isn’t relevant.
By focusing on the dynamics between peers rather than their vices, Selah and The Spades avoids the nightmarish outcomes often prompted by drug-infused storylines. There’s little of the dizziness of Euphoria, or even the delirium of Trainspotting. What matters here is Selah’s empire – and how that legacy will survive or crumble in the future.
As Selah, Simone is magnetic – at once chilly and alluring, with something of Logan Browning’s wry charm in Dear White People. She masters the insecurity of a 17-year-old still obviously confused by the outside world, while putting up a front to those relying on her to set an example. Only one phone call to her mother shows Selah’s weakness – but that’s enough to cement what’s at stake for the character.
Poe treats her audience with respect, making every argument and political decision feel vitally important. Selah and her two main accomplices, played enigmatically by Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) as her right-hand man Maxxie, and newcomer Celeste O’Connor as Paloma, are the main focus – and it’s clear how precarious the social hierachy could seem to those at the top.
Selah and the Spades always makes it totally gripping to watch the school’s snow-globe society tear itself apart, but Poe’s slick microcosm knows where its limits lie, and does well to dance dangerously around them. An impressive first attempt from a hugely promising young filmmaker.
- Director: Tayarisha Poe
- Starring: Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome, Celeste O’Connor
- Release date: April 17 (Amazon Prime Video)