At the elite prep school known as Haldwell, five factions rule over the student body. There’s the Sea, the “rogue teachers’ pets” who can get you an A+ essay for a price. There’s the Skins, who run the in-house gambling racket. Need the scoop on the underground parties happening after hours? You go to the Bobbies, so dubbed because the gang is run by a theater geek named, yes, Bobbie. As for the Prefects, they keep the peace between the various groups and keeps “the Heads,” a.k.a. the teachers and the headmaster, out of the loop.
And then there’s the Spades, overseeing what may be the most lucrative vice of them all: booze and drugs. Its leader is Selah (Lovie Simone), the head cheerleader and overall alpha on campus. Despite the occasional arguments over power grabs and prom themes, there has been a longstanding detente among the factions in order to keep everything running smoothly. Well, there was that incident during sophomore year, involving a snitch — the one thing that none of these teen kingpins can abide is a rat. And whenever everybody brings up the name “Tila,” a palpable chill envelopes the proceedings and everyone tends to go quiet. The bad blood hasn’t been entirely leeched away. But right now, business is good. Everybody gets to wet their beaks. Also, midterms are around the corner, so no one really has time for an all-out mob war.
The only thing is, Selah is going to graduate at the end of the year, along with her right-hand man, Maxxie (When They See Us‘ Jharrel Jerome). This Donna Corleone wants to protect her legacy, which means she needs a proper successor to handle the Spades’ trade and keep their connection in town going. Lucky for her, a new student named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) has caught her eye. A shutterbug working on the school paper, she’s quickly taken under Selah’s wing. The grooming of the heir has begun. There may or may not be a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction that seems to be running between the two of them as well. Then Maxxie starts slipping on the organization front, possibly because of his new girlfriend. Worse, there may be another informer in their midst. Suddenly, Selah’s empire seems like it might be up for grabs. To paraphrase a wise man: When you come for the queen, you best not miss.
That’s the gist of Selah and the Spades, though to try boiling down the debut of writer-director Tayarisha Poe to a genre exercise fashioned in school uniforms is to risk reducing it to the sum of its (intentional or otherwise) influences: a pinch of Rushmore here, a little bit of Brick there, some Dear White People touches for added spice. What she’s given us is a stylistic, sideways take on power dynamics writ small, as well as a fabulous showcase for her young actors — one in particular. A star of the OWN series Greenleaf, Simone gives us a Type A personality that’s equal parts steel backbone, empowered sass and exasperation of being second-guessed. “When you’re 17, you’ve got to grab control wherever you can,” she says; you assume a copy of The Art of War is nestled next a journal on her desk. But Selah’s not a two-dimensional terminatrix, either, and as she begins to feel her control slipping and paranoia slowly begins to warp her mindset, there’s a vulnerability that Simone lets slip through as well (especially in scenes with her mom, played by Gina Torres). It’s the sort of role that lets you feel like you’re hearing a major talent clear her throat. Notice should be taken.
You can say the same thing for Poe, who, in extending her 2014 short “The Overture” to feature length, has fleshed out a world of hallway hierarchies and plaid-skirt subversives. She’s also extended the narrative a tad too much in places, to the point where you can feel things getting a little too thin for their own good in the second half; a shaky transition from low-key satire to high-tension thriller isn’t entirely paved over by formalistic flourishes either. Still, you can tell there’s a voice and vision behind Selah and the Spades, one that’s likely to come into its own after some seasoning. It might seem like faint praise to throw a “watch this space” sign on top of what is indeed a more-than-impressive first movie. But think of how many debuts of fresh young filmmakers you’ve seen over the years, and how that initial spark eventually gifted us with careers defined by exponential level-ups. That’s how you feel watching this. “They never take girls seriously,” Selah complains at one point. “It’s a mistake the whole world makes.” Only an idiot would not take Poe seriously after this. You get the sense she’s just getting warmed up.