At an elite private boarding school, five “factions” rule the school. I’ve gone and put factions into quotation marks because these factions are taken so seriously they feel more like the mob. And each one has an equally fearsome mob don at the top. To ensure a smooth school year, these gangs make temporary alliances, but rest assured that they each mob has its own interests at heart. The head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – is of course our girl Selah (Lovie Simone) and her trusted consigliere is Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) (if you don’t speak gangster, a consigliere is an advisor and right hand man).
It took me a minute to even pinpoint this movie’s setting as a high school because there’s nothing tongue in cheek about this; they take it VERY seriously. Most of all Selah, who knows her power comes from being feared and loved in equal measure, both of which require a certain distance to achieve. So though she is indisputably the most popular girl in school, she is lonely and basically friendless, other than Maxxie. And Maxxie’s about to become dangerously distracted by a new love. So there’s a juicy spot open for Selah’s new protégé, and in fact this role is in desperate need of filling since Selah is a senior with no one to pass the baton to. Enter: Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). Paloma is neither as charming nor as callous as Selah but she’s something much more important: likable. Paloma proves very worthy of the position, rising in prominence among the factions a little too easily for Selah’s comfort. Being number one for so long has painted Selah with insecurity, and if Paloma was once a friend, she is now a threat – Selah will not give up control one day before graduation, and is willing to go to some pretty sinister lengths to ensure it.
The young cast of Selah and the Spades is very talented and very watchable, even if their characters are all shades on the despicable spectrum. The film takes the concept of “cliques” and heightens it to make a point: high school is a dangerous game. Selah may be an unlikable protagonist but you can’t argue that she isn’t complex. All of the characters in writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s film are layered and interesting. Teenagers are treated with the respect they deserve, although not always with the respect they demand. Poe’s notion of high school is not unlike the seediest underbelly of organized crime, everyone ready to stab each other in the back the moment anyone shows vulnerability.
Tayarisha Poe’s film is like a rock veined with gold. There are flashes of brilliance but no one’s striking it rich. For me, the film ended right where it should have begun. Our protagonist is treated more like an antagonist and it leaves us mildly confused, moderately disappointed, and largely unsatisfied.