A slick, stylish debut from one-to-watch Tayarisha Poe.
Poe’s teen drama begins by drawing us into a political high school world not unlike ones we’ve seen before – but soon the cracks in this neatly landscaped teen society begin to widen, and we’re thrown into the schools’ underbelly of violence, betrayal and paranoia, more alike that seen in films depicting the criminal underworld.
When scholarship student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) enrolls at the prestigious Haldwell School, she finds herself drawn in by Queen Bee Selah (Lovie Simone), leader of one of the school’s factions, The Spades.
A much coveted position, senior Selah and her second in command Maxxie are on the lookout for a potential replacement. An impossible task, seeing as perfectionist Selah’s standards are high, and their day-to-day business (dealing study aids and recreational drugs) is a risky one.
Furthermore, there are other troubles on the horizon. The Spades are at war with a rival faction, party-throwers the Bobbies (lead by, surprisingly enough, Bobby), and there’s rumour of a rat in the midst.
The cinematography is varied and beautiful; this, paired with the pretty, eerie soundtrack, gives the film a strangely dreamlike feel that ultimately works really well. Stand out shots include a creative prank, and the factions’ makeshift prom, but almost every visual aspect of Haldwell School and its inhabitants seems cleverly thought out and presented.
Lovie Simone really is Selah; impressive for such a young actress, her portrayl of such a bold and complex character is completely believable. Interestingly, the more the audience learns about Selah’s life – the pressure from her mother, the mysterious downfall of her relationship with her ex-apprentice – the more polarising the character becomes.
The more vulnerable Selah appears to us, the more her need to uphold her position is strengthened, and therefore the more ruthless the character becomes. A once, cool, collected character is revealed to be, under the surface, bubbling with paranoia. The references to Macbeth – which the drama club Bobbies are currently rehearsing – are very appropriate, if slightly on the nose.
The relationship between Paloma and Selah is hard to pin down; sometimes affectionate, but often toxic and borderline abusive, the film hints at there being more between them than a friendship/business relationship, without giving us a definitive answer. Early on in the film Selah states to Paloma that she has no interest in romantic relationships, so perhaps any supposed spark between them is just another of Selah’s mind games.
Paloma’s character is equally well developed. As we follow the story through her eyes, the audience has a clear understanding of how she is taken in by Selah’s steely charm. We worry for Paloma, who has a stronger moral compass than her classmates, and unlike Selah and Maxxie, who are hardened to the harsh realities of leading The Spades, she is slightly naive to what her future role will entail.
Selah and The Spades embraces aspects of cult teen films such as Mean Girls, Cruel Intentions and Election, while some of its coolly brutal aspects are more akin to The Godfather; all the while seeming fresh and individualistic.
At times, Selah and The Spades can feel a little ‘style over substance’, with the beautiful, dreamlike filming style overshadowing it’s simple plot. Relying strongly on exposition through dialogue, the story is often told to us rather than shown, while the ending, in which Selah drugs her protégée Paloma, before coming to her senses and recusing her, feels open-ended and far from conclusive.
That said, the writer/director’s debut is in the process of being developed into a series by Amazon, which may help to tie up some of these loose ends, and further develop the interesting teen mafia world that Poe created.
Visually engaging, and with an incredible, arresting performance by Lovie Simone, Selah and The Spades is an impressive debut from a promising writer and director, that flawlessly blends the pettiness of high school politics with the brutality of the criminal underworld.