Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, making her feature directorial debut – 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 (Lovie Simone), walking the fine line between being feared and loved. Also starring: Jharrel Jerome, Celeste O’Connor, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Jesse Williams and Nekhebet Kum Juch.
Boarding school kids are a particular breed of teenager and they’ve been captured onscreen in a number of ways from horror to rom-com, but Selah and the Spades is bringing it around for fresh take, with democracy and dignified drug-taking. Fresh is the right word for it, Poe’s direction feels very modern and of the moment, it skips over the usual amateur dramatics and cheesy romances. The style feels very reflective of its characters and really embraces their youth, it’s not trying to make them feel overly mature, it spends time simply letting them have fun but it does adapt as the story progresses. There’s also the interesting choice to not use a consistent score or a great deal of music, which would probably be a go to choice of most people making a film such as this, instead it’s only used at times when it will have more of an impact on the scene at hand, which works well.
None of the film would work at all without a strong lead, it revolves entirely around Selah and thankfully Simone was a fantastic choice. The way that Simone presents herself in this role holds an impressive strength, not just in the way she speaks but in her posture, her movements and her expressions, it’s not an easy thing for a young actress to have a strong presence but she really achieves it here. The rest of the cast are good additions, with Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome and Celeste O’Connor backing up Simone, it’s not much of a challenge for Jerome, having made waves with his performance in When They See Us, this feels very low key for him, and O’Connor is relatively unknown but her performance is reminiscent of Kiersey Clemons in Heats Beat Loud, sweet but confident.
The direction, sound and acting are all brilliant, they don’t disappoint and the quality is consistent throughout but the main problem is the writing, it starts off really well and Simone’s monologue/rap near the beginning keeps a great beat and is a really well put together scene. However, as the film moves further into its actual plot, things start to get less impressive, it’s slightly sparse when looked at as a whole, it feels like things are going to get much more complicated but then it never happens. There’s also the issue of introducing Selah’s mother and their strained relationship due to her high standards and lack of empathy, it’s entirely unnecessary, yes it points to Selah’s heightened frustration but you could figure that out already. There’s also a scene at her family home where her mother trots out the tired and overly used story of the scorpion and the frog, it’s been done to death and it added nothing to the film. As well as some issues of predictability, it does for the most part, despite its fresh feel, follow the pattern of those that came before which is disappointing.
There are brief moments where the film dips its toe into darkness but seems to afraid to go further and plays it safe, which results in more of a cliched feeling and takes away from the mystery that it had been building. This goes especially for its final moments, Selah is a character that needs to learn that her actions have consequences, she’s too focused on doing what’s going to keep her on top and though it seems like that’s what the film is going toward in its latter moments, it skips over it and breezes through any potential consequence, which is a real shame.
Selah and the Spades is bursting with young talent, this trio of actors leading the charge are extremely enjoyable to watch and while some get their moment to shine more than others, there’s no weak spot to be found. While the direction feels fresh, the story itself lacks more originality, the creation of the factions may be new but the rest of plot is not. The pace starts to lose momentum about half way in and sadly never picks it up again, it’s very clear what they were going for and it’s hitting a spot that’s needed in film today but it also needed to take more risks to become something great. However, Poe is definitely a director to keep an eye out for what she does next.