Entering the canon of films that trenchantly sketch depictions of high school’s dissenting hierarchical system of cliques v. crews is Tayarisha Poe’s feature-length debut, Selah and the Spades. In an academy run by five underground student factions dabbling in dealing, cheating, and gambling, Selah and the Spades focuses on teenage desperation for power and status within an environment that inherently puts them beneath it. However, despite its nucleus of spirit and overwrought chaos, Selah and the Spades is curtailed by its own disorder.
It’s Selah’s (Lovie Simone) final semester at the Haldwell School, where alongside Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), she is the kingpin of the Spades, one of five factions that run the seedy business dealings within the academy. These “factions” operate like gangs — correspondence with another faction under the nose of your boss can leave you bloodied and bruised. Taking new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) under her wing, Selah helms the Spades’ operations, but swirling rumors, the threat of a rat, and the knowledge that her impending graduation will precipitate her dethroning, augment tension not just between the groups, but within Selah as well. It’s this constant distrust, along with rushing undercurrents of insecurity feigning ego, that inform Selah’s choices, and rule her to act in a way that spares no one but herself.
Magnifying it to the point of hyperbole, Selah and the Spades deploys a valiant effort in pursuing commentary on the pressures of image, and desire for control, that dictate high school behavior. Being that the foundation of teenage angst is the fervid feeling of being manipulated by forces of which you have no say, these emotions of retaliation against the displacement of personal power motivate the film’s plot. In a monologue, Selah delineates these needs, saying, “When you’re 17 you gotta grab onto control. They always try to take it from you don’t they? They always try to break you down when you’re 17.” The film’s intention to do an exaggerated survey of these pressures and their effect on the individual and group level is notable on a fundamental level, but the execution ultimately falters.
Selah and the Spades fails to pick a tone. The attitude of the gangster spin through which this tale is told is jam packed in its narrative arch, and periodically, there’s deliberate lingo the characters speak in to complement it, similar to the style of film-noir vernacular in Rian Johnson’s Brick. However, unlike the latter, this film does not commit to it for a minute, and it sorely sticks out, feeling misplaced in its sporadic inclusion. The plot itself is remarkable at its larger moments, with a few really awesome sequences of mounted tension and nervous anticipation. Although, the details in between often feel crammed together with scenes that feel disjointed from the events that took place before them. The film’s main source of consistency is its visual style. The majority of its color palette is muted, cool, and bleak — even the vibrant colors have a slightly depressing tinge, adding to the melancholy that serves as a looming basis to the film’s otherwise more prevalent suspenseful disposition.
With a disappointingly stark script, the actors aren’t given much freedom to truly perform. Given that the heightened emotions the story requests are the meat of the movie, there is hardly ever a genuine sympathetic connection to the characters. Empirical moments of emotion are blatant — it’s evident when you’re meant to feel something — but it rarely passes through the lens of objectivity and into an emotional core. Simone and O’Connor don’t necessarily give poor performances, but the only moments of authentic, realized sentiment come from Maxxie’s stints on screen. Aside from the main trio of characters, the supporting roles within the other factions are largely archetypal. This can work in the setting of a high school satire, but given that the interconnected tension between these groups outlines the story, a lack of context to any motivation but Selah’s is missed, leaving a questioning hole in the narrative.
Selah and the Spades does a splendid justice to its titular character — allowing for a thorough unbiased look into the interiority of Selah, who may otherwise be written off as purely cold and calculated. The film’s resolve to open the floodgates into its amplified portrayal of teenage pressures and motivations is refreshing — the simple derision of flipping the trope of sequestered high school cliques into rival gangs is inspired. However, with the tone, script, and performances lacking muscle, Selah and the Spades cannot support itself by bones alone.