At the Haldwell School, the posh Pennsylvania boarding school that serves as the location for Tayarisha Poe’s “Selah and the Spades,” they call the student cliques that dominate campus life “factions.” But they might as well call them “families,” because a few minutes at Haldwell in Poe’s quietly commanding film will convince you that these five factions run the show in a way that isn’t too far removed from the way the Mafia’s five families ran the underworld in New York City starting in the 1930s.
Sure, there are fewer things like contract killings in this particular story, but “Selah and the Spades” takes the model of high-school movies like “Clueless” and “Pretty in Pink” and throws in a hefty dose of “The Godfather.” Poe’s feature debut, though, has a style all its own, spare but rich and able to make the umpteenth teen movie we’ve all seen feel fresh.
The film is premiering on Amazon Prime on April 17, 15 months after its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
An opening voiceover that’s breezier than anything that follows sets up the premise: At Haldwell, the five factions control everything that goes on behind the administration’s back. One is made up of teachers’ pets who help other students cheat, one is in charge of gambling, one oversees all illegal parties, one keeps the school officials “blissfully unaware” and one, the Spades, deals in “the most classic of vices: booze, pills, powders, fun.”
The five factions have a sometimes uneasy coexistence, with one rule binding them all together: nobody rats anybody out. Naturally, though, there are power plays and infighting – particularly since the leader of the Spades, 17-year-old Selah (Lovie Simone), is adamant that she should be the one who runs the show at all times, with a little help from her sidekick Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome).
Selah also heads the school’s spirit squad, a group of cheerleaders who choose their own outfits, choreograph their own routines and do everything they can to control their own destinies. “When you’re a 17-year-old girl, you’ve got the whole world telling you what to do with your body,” Selah announces. “You’ve gotta grab onto that power whenever you can.”
So she does, which causes resentment among the party faction, the Bobbys. (Selah is black and the head Bobby is white, but race is never an issue in the film, at least not overtly.) At the same time, Selah is trying to groom a successor to take over the Spades when she graduates at the end of the school year, latching onto a sophomore photographer, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who proves to be quite capable and uncomfortably (for Selah) ambitious.
Simone makes for a fiercely assertive Selah, but she lets the strain of being that fierce show: When she tells her mother over the phone that she got a 93 on her calculus test and her mom responds, “What happened to the other seven points?” she stammers and slips and knows how inadequate her answer seems.
But she’s determined not to show weakness, to the point where she refuses to date because she sees other girls crying in the bathroom over boys and could never allow herself to be that vulnerable. When things get tense between her and Maxxie, who has made what she considers an unforgivable mistake, or when Paloma becomes too assertive a protégé for Selah’s taste, she has no option but to get harder, meaner and more controlling. (Her drive to have agency in her own life makes her a real heroine to root for … until she’s not.)
By this point, the lightheartedness in the film’s early stages is long gone, not that Poe ever seemed interested in spending any real time in traditional teen-comedy territory. “Selah and the Spades” is stylish and controlled, with Poe and cinematographer Jomo Fray reveling in the shadows, playing with angles and unafraid to back off from their characters.
It also makes striking, judicious use of music, with Japanese-born composer Aksa Matsumiya’s sparse, sometimes eerie score dropping out for long stretches and then comes back to play a central role every so often. The sound design is also subtle but tremendously effective, particularly in a druggy, doomy party scene that moves to heavy beats layered deep in the background.
At times the storytelling may make the story look and feel more interesting than it is, particularly in an ending that feels as if it rushes to find a bit of forced redemption. But Poe is an assured first-time director who has created a high-school movie that feels distinct from all the high-school movies that preceded it.
And distinct from the mob movies, too.