Tayarisha Poe’s visually rich feature debut, Selah and the Spades, exudes a painstaking commitment to style in every frame, prop and set piece. It centers around a senior pep-squad leader and straight-A student, Selah (Lovie Simone), who attends the fictitious co-ed Haldwell boarding school in Pennsylvania, where the children of the wealthy and prestigious are embroiled in more than just school stress and crushes.
Five factions rule the school’s student body, each with a particular vice or specialization. Selah and the Spades control the illicit drug trade that sustains the many students of Haldwell. You also have the Bobbies, led by blond theater enthusiast Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), who organize every after-dark party in basements and hideaways. The Skins oversee a gambling ring, mostly related to posh sports activities. The Tarits will write you an A+ paper for a nominal fee. The Prefects, run by non-descript Two Tom (Evan Roe), ensure that the headmaster and other authority figures are none the wiser.
Though the film deals with such pertinent teenage themes of loneliness, perfectionism and the unrelenting sway of one’s demanding family—in part due to it being loosely based on Poe’s own adolescence, drawing from her high school boarding school experiences—Selah and the Spades exists in a world so uniquely its own, as pretty as it is chilling. The privileged, insular bubble of boarding school rings true, but a Wes Anderson-inspired color palette saturates scenes of Scorsese-esque beatings by moonlight. Glimpses of young adulthood from a uniquely adult perspective blur the line between the two.
Selah and the Spades traffics more in procedural mob genre tropes as opposed to soapy teen drama cliches: The plot largely centers around Selah befriending Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a younger new student she is eyeing as a potential successor to lead the Spades. There’s also extortion, rat rumors and the ever-looming threat of war among rival factions. And that’s not even counting the hum around a mysterious former student named Teela, a suspected BFF of Selah’s who’s since vanished.
But comparing the teen anti-heroes to the likes of Tony Soprano and Henry Hill ignores what is at the crux of Selah and the Spades: not the struggle to maintain power, but the burning desire to have any power at all. At the end of the day, these characters have to answer to someone, whether it is their parents—who in Selah’s case completely control her future collegiate prospects—or the headmaster, who can end their education at Haldwell at the first sniff of trouble.
This struggle for autonomy is crucial for Selah, and she feels most strongly about acquiring it across gender lines. As the head of the pep squad, Selah flexes her team’s collective authority over their image, reflected in everything from their choreography to their uniform.
“When you’re 17 and when you’re a girl, you’ve got the whole world telling you what to do with your body,” Selah says as her squad strikes poses and shows off routines.
“You know who decides our uniforms?” Selah asks the camera.
“We do!” the squad booms behind her.
“We tell you how short our skirts will be,” Selah commands.
Perhaps what makes Haldwell a fantastical setting is less the evergreen grounds, the stunning architecture and grandiose halls than the way that race and class are never frankly discussed despite the diversity among its students. In a way, this is a welcome change. Selah and Paloma are never inhibited by their race, never—even in the cruelest of exchanges between classmates—dismissed due to their Blackness. Characters who don’t need to persevere in the face of racial adversity can merely exist; liberated, their personalities flourish and take center stage. For some, the choice to not discuss race and class at Haldwell might seem obtuse, however the stark omission of these discussions among characters trusts the viewer to soak in Poe’s thematic and artistic choices, offering small details as much as overarching questions.
Amazon is reportedly eyeing Selah as a potential series. Television is perhaps a more fitting medium for the film’s highly stylized atmosphere and exploration of the innate hunger for autonomy that fuels teen life, grating more plot space for otherwise stunted character development. What distinguishes Selah from other teen-centered media such as Euphoria or Riverdale is a careful reluctance to sensationalize or mythologize the teen experience. Poe’s steady hand keeps the balance between realistic teen drama and the crime genre, allowing its examination of melodrama surrounding betrayal, rule-breaking and power-grabs to breathe true.
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Writer: Tayarisha Poe
Stars: Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome, Celeste O’Connor, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Jessie Williams, Even Roe, Nekhebet Kum Juch, Francesca Noel
Release Date: April 17, 2020 (Amazon Prime)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.