When comparing Selah And The Spades to fellow high-school dramas, Tayarisha Poe’s directorial debut leans more towards Rian Johnson than Ryan Murphy. Specifically Johnson’s own directorial debut, Brick, an ambitious but rewarding teen noir that tracked a murder mystery up a finely tuned high-school hierarchy.
A similar system exists at Haldwell boarding school, where Selah (Lovie Simone) is completing her final year. Five factions dominate the corridors, each providing shady services for their fellow students. With the Spades, it’s “booze, pills, powder and fun”, all peddled under the uncompromising gaze of Simone’s queen bee. A whistle-stop tour of Selah’s pristine, strictly organised home confirms she’s not running the Spades for profit; this is her direct line to power, and she’s not about to pass her legacy on to just anyone. As new student and wannabe Spade Paloma, Celeste O’Connor delivers a nuanced performance and enjoys solid chemistry with Simone — who lends her gravitational pull and a glassy stare to this ruthless entrepreneur — but nonetheless her character serves as little more than our entry into her mentor’s world.
Alongside this finely cast pair, When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome is likeable, but again, while his role as Selah’s sidekick feels bursting with promise, it never manifests into anything significant. Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s script feels easily distracted, dropping one idea to jump to the next with little afterthought. A speech-to-camera from Selah on the manipulation of girls’ bodies holds power but feels detached from the surrounding story, while secondary characters show glimmers of potential that never grow (see Jesse Williams’ peculiar headmaster).
Poe has taken great care to build the world of Haldwell, with its woodland raves and self-imposed justice system, and visually it compares to a Gen X Alice In Wonderland — but the film’s substance fails to keep up with its style, meaning Selah And the Spades doesn’t quite join the clique of classics.