Selah and the Spades, the directorial debut of Tayarisha Poe, is a coming of age story wrapped in a genre experiment. It feels reminiscent of Johnson’s 2006 neo-noir Brick, a film where life at a California high school is filtered through the lens of hard-boiled detective clichés. But while Selah shares a similar approach of blending high school drama with another genre–in this case, gangster flicks–it never dives quite as deeply into the tropes of its source material. Instead, it uses the low-stakes gang war as a springboard for a more personal story about the pressures put on young women and the need to take control of your own life, even at an age when you don’t completely know what that means.
The Haldwell School for Boarding and Day Students, nestled in a secluded corner of Pennsylvania, is run by five groups of students, or “factions,” each running a different aspect of the school’s illegal underworld. While Selah begins by detailing everything you might wish to know about each faction – their names, their leaders, and their areas of expertise – there are only two groups that really matter: The Spades, who handle the distribution of drugs and alcohol throughout campus, and The Bobbies, who orchestrate all the unauthorized dorm parties at which said drugs and alcohol are consumed. Although the other factions continue to make guest appearances, it is the rivalry between these two mafioso cliques that truly drives the narrative.
Selah, played by Lovie Simone, is the head of the Spades. As a senior set to graduate at the end of the semester with no clear heir to her empire, she attends a meeting of the five factions, a scene that could have easily been lifted straight from The Godfather if Don Corleone had spent just a little more time planning senior class pranks. Afterwards, Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) approaches Selah to let her know that The Bobbies would be more than happy to take over The Spades’ operation after her effective retirement, setting Selah off on a renewed search for a protégé. When Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), arrives at the school as a new day student, Selah sees the potential for a worthy successor. A budding photographer, Selah tricks Palomoa into spying on Bobby and capturing a tryst with another faction head under the auspices of a school project, and the pair become fast friends. Much of what follows might be fairly predictable to anyone familiar with the gangster drama. Paloma gets a tour of the criminal ring’s operations, betrayals beget betrayals, and a bunch of teenagers get high in the woods.
The main focus of the film, though, is control – how to find it, how to keep it, and everyone who is trying to take it away from you. This is Selah’s real struggle. As a businesswoman in an organized crime family, she’s naturally struggling to keep her rivals at bay. But that struggle extends to every other part of her life. As a young woman, she is told how to dress because “they can’t tell boys to keep it in their pants.” She’s driven by a domineering mother who tries to force her to a college that will “keep you safe from yourself.” During a conversation with Paloma about love and sex, Selah says she’s never had any interest in them because she’s seen the other girls crying in bathrooms, and why do something that would make you cry in public? When the headmaster announces that senior prom is cancelled as punishment for the factions’ activities, Selah and Paloma see it as a grab for power and hatch a scheme to take that power back. Yet even as Paloma grows into her role as replacement, Selah struggles to let go of control over her empire, a control she will inevitably lose when she graduates.
Why is there this need for control at such a young age? Why cling onto something that you will inevitably lose at commencement? Selah is at its most captivating when it tries to answer these questions, even if it never fully answers them. At one point, Selah’s mother retells the parable of the frog and the scorpion, a story about how one can never change their true nature. High school is the perfect place to test that theory because, as Selah explains during a Spirit Squad meeting, they’ll try to take everything from you when you’re 17. They’ll try to break you and, for the most part, that’s as good a reason to try and stop them.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.
Selah and the Spades is a strong first entry from a director who clearly demonstrates a unique and intriguing voice. While the story can sometimes meander and lose focus, and the ending delivers an anticlimax of epic proportions, most of the journey is thoughtful and intriguing. The strong young cast helps make Selah’s world feel real, even when its gangster motifs pushes the bounds of credulity a little too far.