There are many coming-of-age films set in high schools that focus on different cliques: the mean girls, the nerds, the jocks, the theater kids, etc., but what Selah and the Spades dir. Tayarisha Poe makes clear from the first frame is: this is not that sort of movie. The cliques or factions are not a byproduct of the genre, but rather the foundation of the movie.
Meet Selah (Lovie Simone), the 17-year-old star student and leader of her faction, the Spades. She, alongside her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), must keep their hold of their elite boarding school, Haldwell, amidst a power struggle between Selah and the leaders of the other four factions. Not only does Selah have to manage the typical struggles of senior year and pressures from her critical mother, but she also has to find an heir to her throne of pills, drugs, and alcohol: an heir she finds in sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor).
As Paloma learns more about the business and proves to be a more than suitable protégée, Selah contends with her fears of losing control as her empire slips away from her. What follows is a Cruel Intentions-esque story that examines the ways power can corrupt anyone especially when they feel it slipping away.
In her directorial debut, Poe makes a strong statement. Having also written the film, she strives to tell a tale of vices, societal pressures, and power struggles, all in the highly contained and pressurized environment of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school. Poe draws you immediately into the world of a typical Haldwell student and thrusts you into the middle of the action. There isn’t much the film shies away from and much like how high school feels when you’re in it, the stakes at hand are high. Poe does a skillful job of creating a realistic world with just enough drama and intrigue to still ground the narrative in reality, including the addition of a monologue about the pressures teenage girls feel in regards to their clothing that feels especially poignant for young girls today.
Newcomer Lovie Simone brings the film to life with her portrayal of the titular character. Equal parts defiant and vulnerable, her layered performance gives way to the internal struggle one must face when they’re the “top dog” and everyone is gunning for their spot. While we don’t agree with Selah’s choices and might be frightened by some of them when her back is against the wall, we begin to see the cracks in her carefully curated façade; and she’s not as put together as she wants everyone to assume she is which is a duality Simone handles artfully.
The chemistry between Simone and her co-stars, Celeste O’Connor, and Emmy Award winner Jharrel Jerome plays nicely into the fragile dynamic the characters have that teeters close to the brink by the end of the film. Their natural swag and cool exteriors, easily make you feel like you’d want to be part of their friend group. Both Jerome and O’Connor give convincing performances as the #2 and #3 in charge of the Spades’ operation. Their blend of youthful exuberance, naiveté, and quick-wit help heighten the stakes as the story takes darker and darker twists and turns.
Selah and the Spades is refreshing in the landscape of coming-of-age films. It’s not often that Black girls get to play the mean girl, or the sinister yet vulnerable leading lady, rather than the semi-magical best friend that doles out advice. A character like Selah can be very powerful in the canon of coming-of-age films, not just for the strength of her character, but also for all that she represents. She can hold her own among the Regina Georges, Sharpay Evanses, Courtney Shanes, and Kathryn Merteuils of the world, and add a little bit of flavor that’s been missing all along.
Selah and the Spades premieres on Amazon Prime Video on April 17th.