***½ (out of ****)
A postmodernist neo-noir breaks out against the backdrop of an East Coast private boarding school in Selah & the Spades. This is a striking feature debut from writer/director Tayarisha Poe, whose tone control and command of symmetry within her shot set-ups are compelling enough before we even get into the labyrinthine plot. That plot involves blackmail, attempted murder, and the illicit behavior and dealings of several factions that, within this boarding school, essentially comprise the gangland politics of a criminal organization. The opening sequence establishes the rules of this group with an admirable efficiency: The collective is responsible for the overall partygoing atmosphere of the students’ social lives, and each faction is responsible for one aspect of that atmosphere.
The responsibilities for the other groups rather disappear in a haze of exposition, but the important thing to know is that the Spades, led by Selah (Lovie Simone), are in charge of providing alcohol, drugs, and other such paraphernalia. This involves ruling by an iron fist for Selah, who, to look at her, would seem unassuming. She is an African American teenager in a school whose students all seem to be taller than her by at least an inch, which means that she must exert some degree of control over the Spades, with her loyal right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) by her side. Initially, the plot follows her attempt to break new member Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) into the group dynamic, despite pushback against the idea of inviting a freshman.
Selah sees her job as multifaceted. Not only must she juggle the responsibilities as current head of the Spades – she also sees it as important that the school’s administration, represented entirely by its headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams), fall in line with the collective vision for the school had by the members of the various groups. Set to graduate in the fall, she must also choose a successor to take her place by the end of the year, which proves more than difficult for someone in the grip of megalomaniacal control. In a fascinating reflection of her school reign, Selah’s home life is tense and uncomfortable. Her mother (played by Gina Torres) expects the very best, questioning where “the other seven points have gone” in an early confrontation upon learning her daughter made a 93 on a test.
As happens in such situations, Selah’s own model of authoritative behavior reflects that of her mother when applied to the Spades, which becomes important when unknown variable Paloma takes on duties in street deals to gain upward mobility within the group. Eventually, the pressure of training the newbie and a tip from rival faction leader Bobby (Anna Mulvoy Ten) that Maxxie’s ability to delegate may be slipping disastrously. Soon, Selah isn’t sure whom to trust, and by the final shot of this movie, it isn’t entirely out of the question to believe she has since lost her soul. That is the issue throbbing at the center of this film’s rather broken heart, too.
Something within Simone’s performance, which is perfectly pitched between threatening and vulnerable, communicates this truth quite well, and Jerome and O’Connor are also quite good as foils for Selah’s sense of ultimate control – Maxxie with the old ways of doing things and Paloma, clearly in love with her new “boss” of sorts, with fresh, risky, and exciting new ways to approach internal loyalty. As the final act turns rather violent, Poe does a fine job of finding the heart of Selah & the Spades, and the results are vibrant and alive.
(Review by Joel Copling)