If you took Harry Potter, put it in a paper bag with The Wire, and shook it vigorously, you’d get the basic idea behind Selah And The Spades—a film that, to its credit, is only partially defined by those two elements. It takes place in the ubiquitous YA setting of an elite boarding school; at Haldwell School for Boarding and Day Students, the pupils have sorted themselves into five groups, no hat required. Each of these groups is in charge of catering to a particular teenage vice: One throws the parties, another runs a racket betting on football games, another helps classmates cheat on their exams, and another provides a smokescreen of respectability so the administration suspects nothing. But the most powerful of them all are the Spades, led by honors student Selah (Lovie Simone), who sell the drugs that fuel the parties that cause the hangovers that necessitate the cheating.
As the film opens, Selah is in the last semester of her senior year, and although she continues to excel both in academics and as head of the cheer squad, she’s secretly preoccupied with the question of legacy. That leads her to strike up a friendship with new girl in school Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), in hopes of grooming her to take over the Spades once Selah graduates. This sparks the jealousy of Selah’s old first lieutenant, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), who’s known Selah since childhood and sees through her cold, calculating exterior to the vulnerable girl underneath. Few others do, though, including Selah herself. Throughout the film, she expounds on everything from sexual agency to the necessity of making your underlings fear you, full of the unshakeable confidence of someone who doesn’t know enough to realize she doesn’t know everything.
Director Tayarisha Poe got her start as a still photographer, a background that translates both in the camera perpetually slung around Paloma’s neck and in the film’s expert lighting and composition. Although Selah And The Spades isn’t as fanciful in its set dressing as another recent YA riff, Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills, cinematographer Jomo Fray and production designer Valeria De Felice imagine Haldwell School as a lush haven insulated from the outside world, verdant as an English country garden and as exquisitely textured as a French couture gown. It’s not a real place in any sense of the word, which enhances the feeling that Poe’s characters are sheltered youngsters playing at gangland politics—and it’s not clear if that feeling is intentional.
It’s just as well that the film’s criminal intrigue doesn’t quite click, however, given that Poe’s camera is more interested in the angles of Simone’s face than it is the war between Haldwell’s competing-yet-interdependent factions. A sluggish, unfocused middle section complicates these rivalries to the point where all but the most enraptured may lose interest, before coming back around by focusing on the most fascinating thing about Selah And The Spades: Selah herself. Once Poe and Simone begin to show the cracks in her polished facade, she becomes a corrupted queen of Shakespearean proportions, a young woman who’s been twisted by the immense pressure to be perfect at all times and in all things. And the multiple facets of this rock-hard diamond of a character are far more eye-catching than a bunch of rich kids pretending to be mobsters.