Selah and the Spades

The elite northeastern Haldwell boarding school isn’t really run by its Headmaster (Jesse Williams, "Cabin in the Woods") but by five factions who control the high school’s student body. While the Bobbys excel running illegal parties, the most powerful of the five procures booze, pills and powders. With its leader in her senior year looking for a suitable protégée, drama is a certainty for “Selah and the Spades.”

Laura's Review: B-

And that description pretty much negates the film’s trailer, which positions the movie as a seventeen year-old female empowerment saga based within the world of cheerleading. Selah is indeed a cheerleader and there are a couple of routines to be seen (in scenes which, oddly, recall “The Fits”), but the sport is a but a footnote. Writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut is about power and female friendship and how the former can lay waste to the latter. Much like Jennifer Reeder's debut, "Knives and Skin," Poe’s talents evince themselves more in direction of her cast, production and style than in narrative, which can be frustratingly opaque.

We meet the five factions at a contentious outdoor meeting where a senior theme (for prom one presumes?) is being hotly debated, but only Selah (Lovie Simone) and Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten) really register, the former a beauty sporting yard-long braids and her cheerleading outfit, the latter a blond in an awkward looking beret.

New girl Paloma (Celeste O'Connor), a sophomore, catches Selah’s attention as she snaps pictures for the school paper and she begins actively courting the younger girl, scandalizing when she brings her to a seniors-only event. But Selah’s mercurial personality and her drug running activities keep Paloma off balance while Selah’s right hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, "Moonlight") suffers bouts of jealousy. Then there’s the disquieting history of Selah’s last ‘chosen one…’

Poe’s film exhibits far more originality than we normally see in the genre, so it is disappointing that her narrative gets muddled when it should be ramping up into its climax. The film rights itself, but we are left to wonder what’s so important about five factions when only two of them seem to matter, just like Selah’s Spades. We get some insight into Selah’s laser focused lust for control via her relationship with her mom (Gina Torres, TV’s ‘Suits’), a tiger mom from hell who accepts nothing but perfection. The film has echoes of “Dear White People” in both its preppy setting (the film was shot at The Academy at Penguin Hall in Wenham, MA) and O’Connor’s vague resemblance to Tessa Thompson, but it also has a witchy vibe, its mafia-like factions not unlike the four houses of “Harry Potter,” its berobed, whispered secret gatherings vaguely satanic.

The film’s production design is cloaked in the verdant greens of lush wet grass, moss and ivy-covered walls, the outdoors far more prevalent than indoor classrooms, Selah’s spaces art directed to a fare-thee-well, her drug chest a glowing cache of potions. Poe and her cinematographer Jomo Fray follow their stars down hallways and stairs into lairs and through the woods, keeping the film visually interesting throughout, at one point accompanied by a funky, Lynchian drum beat. But it is Lovie Simone’s cool intensity and Celeste O'Connor’s initial smitten bewilderment that turns into her own brand of confidence that ignite “Selah and the Spades.”

Robin's Review: B-

The Haldwell is a prestigious prep school whose student body is run by the leaders of the five “factions.” Selah (Lovie Simone) heads the powerful Spades faction and runs the illicit drug biz for the student body. But, there is trouble brewing and a turf war is in the making for “Selah and the Spades.”

I watched a clip from the film before settling down to view Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature and, I have to say, it intrigued me. Selah, in front of her cheerleading posse, the Spades, gives a soliloquy on being 17 and a girl and, it is obvious, this is about power, particularly girl power. “Selah and the Spades” is all about that.

Haldwell is “ruled” by the factions in the student body – the Tarits, the Bobbies, the Ambers, the Prefects and, number one, the Spades. Selah, nearing graduation, needs to continue the Spades’s legacy and find a new number one. A transfer student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), catches Selah’s eye and she begins the grooming process for her replacement.

This is a teen fantasy tale that creates a youth world where the kids are in control and the adults are on the periphery only. Selah is the center of this fairytale and Lovie Simone embodies the commanding and demanding teen and gives the strongest performance of the young cast.

One thing I have noted in teen movies these days – like “Book Smart,” “Banana Split,” and, here, with “Selah…” – is that, in this brave new world, there is absolutely no resemblance to the high school world I grew up in a half century ago. Maybe this is just literary license by the filmmakers, showing pot smoking and drinking an integral part of this teen universe. Or, maybe it really is as depicted and I am just an old fogey, which I am.