“Selah and the Spades” is an unexpected reinvention of the high school drama. While the genre generally feels occupied with parental pressures, learning experiences and tense social dynamics, all of which “Selah” has plenty of, the film adds a subtle stylishness and solemnity that make it feel as mature as it is fresh.
Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s debut is impeccably crafted, with a seamless visual style that feels almost otherworldly. This otherworldliness is referenced in the film too, when the protagonist, Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), asks her newfound protege, Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor): “How’s the transition been for you? You know, from the real world to this one.”
This line captures the film’s main effect: blurring the lines between fantasy and reality to portray a coming-of-age story that feels as dramatic as it is authentic.
It’s a familiar setup: Selah, the designated queen bee of her Pennsylvania boarding school, leads a band of students dubbed “the Spades,” a socially dominant group that runs a covert drug exchange. Selah, who is looking for a successor to take her place once she graduates, quickly grows fond of Paloma, a new, soft-spoken student who reminds Selah of her younger self.
While Paloma initially finds herself drawn to Selah, defending her against those who question her and going out of her way to prove her friendship, their relationship is gradually tested when other characters, including Selah’s close friend and confidante Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), reveal Selah’s often-toxic influences on those she surrounds herself with. As Paloma begins to uncover the violence and criminal activity that the Spades engage in, she questions her place within the group but remains devoted to Selah.
Poe’s script is poetic in the way that it unravels the darkness of its setting and characters. While the premise of the Spades and their undercover drug operation creates a unique plot to explore the boarding school’s structure, as well as the relationships between characters, Poe remains focused on understanding her main characters’ more personal experiences and emotions. Paloma becomes a more confident character throughout the film, just as Selah’s self-confidence starts to dwindle. And while Selah could easily be painted as a villain for her position and her actions, Poe examines the pressures Selah faces from herself and from her family to maintain a high level of success. Moments in the film point to Selah’s selfishness and manipulativeness, but she remains a sympathetic, if complicated, character throughout.
The audience’s understanding of the characters is, of course, influenced by the perceptive performances of its leads. O’Connor’s performance is subtle, and it’s easy to miss her quiet, pensive presence until the explosive, tense finale gives her the chance to shine. Simone convincingly portrays Selah’s conflicted feelings in her interactions with family and friends, as well as her cool aloofness when she presents herself in front of the larger student body. Jerome, perhaps the most familiar lead actor of “Selah,” embodies the tension underlying the film’s darkest moments.
The film’s distinct visual style elevates both the script’s poeticism and the cast’s performances. From slow, lingering shots of the characters running through empty grass fields to images of the school’s cheer squad lined up in perfectly symmetrical form, every bit of the film’s cinematography and production design feel meticulously choreographed, contributing to the film’s tone and message.
“Selah” looks soft and velvety when the characters are in a joyous state, with slightly blurred and dreamy shots. But as the tension grows, the camera becomes shakier and the colors start to muddle, as we’re placed in the perspectives of the characters themselves.
“Selah” may not provide its audience with a neatly finished storyline. Instead, Poe chooses to focus on the characters’ experiences and individual futures, which continue to change based on their decisions up until the very end. But what “Selah” does provide is plenty of new talent, both behind and in front of the camera, with the potential to create compelling stories for years to come.