Full disclosure: In her filmmaking debut, Tayarisha Poe’s witty, wicked “Selah and the Spades” doesn’t quite stick the landing. However, all is forgiven: Not only will those bumps likely be rectified when Poe and Amazon (which acquired the film at Sundance 2019) unveil an Amazon Studios series adaptation of the high school drama, but Poe has built a rich world that’s equal parts “Rushmore,” “Heathers,” and “The Godfather,” with all the unpredictability that teenage behavior can possibly engender. Set at the lush Haldwall School, Poe takes high school tribalism to a new level, crafting a boarding school hierarchy in which five factions rule the campus and provide its citizens with plenty of necessary vices.
At the top of the groups — introduced in an energetic opening that feels like Wes Anderson wrapped in barbed wire — sit the Spades, and at the top the Spades sits their beloved leader Selah (Lovie Simone, owning a demanding role). Selah’s reign has not been without controversy, but it’s mostly been successes notched on her impeccable belt, and she’s not about to start screwing things up in her senior year. The problem: Selah must choose someone to lead the Spades once she’s gone, and she has no suitable options.
Poe never digs into why the rest of the Spades are not up to the task (really, she never digs into the other Spades at all, besides Jharrel Jerome’s turn as Maxxie, Selah’s best friend and right-hand guy), and that’s one of few uneven elements peppered throughout the film. Poe does layer in hints about a previous misbegotten protege; some of Selah’s enemies are quick to invoke her when Selah threatens to get her way yet again. Still, it’s a credit to Simone’s ace performance that when newbie Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) arrives at Haldwall, Selah’s desire to mold her into her own image doesn’t feel like such an unbelievable jump.
Paloma, an observant underclassman who is usually seen with a camera in her hand, is a compelling foil. That Selah, a born leader obsessed with knowing (and cataloging) reams of information about both her friends and her foes would gravitate to someone who does just that for the simple of fun of it, also helps ease the relationship into being. As Selah’s influence on Paloma grows, both of the girls evolve in major ways (and Poe slyly hints at other attractions between the two). Both performers are more than up to the task of portraying such complex characters, and Simone’s ability to twist and shift Selah given the circumstance (while always holding tight to her core personality) is something of a marvel.
Simone is also game for Poe’s more ambitious affectations, as the filmmaker — so sharp and distinct in her style, even with just a single film to her name — requires Selah to dabble in all sorts of quirky diversions. From breaking the fourth wall throughout the film to delivering a biting monologue on the way the world treats its teenage girls, Simone’s Selah never flags, an engaging and world-wise presence in a film that never misjudges just how much a girl can accomplish. That Selah (and the Spades) earned their notoriety through shocking means (read: drugs, a lot of drugs) doesn’t lower any estimations of Selah, a first-rate student and overachiever who simply succeeds at everything she sets her mind to, legal or not.
Until, of course, Selah starts to lose her well-earned iron grip. Poe’s vivid rendering of a high school clique system gone bonkers shades in all sorts of intriguing tidbits about how it actually works, all built around the tension of what happens when it doesn’t anymore. The one hard and fast rule of the factions — which, based on their frequent meetings, appear to secretly love rules — is a decree that each and every faction is free of finks who might out them to school brass. In the not-too-distant past, there was even a war sparked by such a rat, one only healed with actual signed treaties between all parties.
When a rat is sniffed out by the Sea (the teachers’ pet faction, loosely speaking), it calls in the sanctity of not just the factions, but Selah’s own rule. As complex as the world “Selah and the Spades” inhabits a complex world, but it’s built on basic truths about the way people (especially smart teenagers) behave with each other. As the film moves forward into a stuffed final act, those observations are pushed to the brink.
What shakes out is a surprise, but it fits inside the cloistered world Poe crafted for her indelible characters. Amusingly, it even comes to a head at prom — another wink at the high-school movie tropes that Poe makes her own — when Selah must finally confront what it means to have your glory days already behind you. Fortunately, Poe and her creation only have a bright future ahead of them, we’re just lucky to be granted admission to its rarefied halls.
“Selah and the Spades” will be available to stream on Amazon on Friday, April 17.