Movies about high school or kids of high school age are rarely experimental with their stories. They tend to deal with ideas like young love, budding sexuality, cliques, and bullying, things that are universal no matter where a person attended school. But every now and again, filmmakers attempt to stretch the boundaries of what a high school movie can be.
That’s definitely the case with Selah and the Spades, which is set at a private school where different factions help the student body engage in vices like cheating in classes, illegal parties, gambling, and, of course, drugs and alcohol. That last vice is the purview of the Spades, led by Selah (Lovie Simone), who rules over her small kingdom with an iron fist with the help of her friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome).
When a new student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), comes in, Selah takes her under her wing in a bid to groom her as the new leader of the Spades when Selah graduates. Her crusade, however, is complicated by the ambitions of the leaders of the other factions, a suspicious administration, and her own hubris.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Tayarisha Poe, the film feels like a mixture between Dear White People and Heathers, although it has no interest in having fun. The usual high school film would use the presence of the factions’ vices to engage in all manner of hijinks, but those things are deadly serious in this film. More than one student winds up getting a beatdown when they don’t abide by the code of keeping the goings-on secret.
More to the point, Poe is only truly interested in one faction — the Spades. She shows the factions meeting and interacting on multiple occasions, but everything revolves around Selah and her controlling personality. How the other factions go about their business is barely touched upon, but we get lots of details about what types of drugs the Spades sell, how they keep track of who orders what, and more.
What the film doesn’t have is much narrative momentum. There are teases of a story, like allusions to a past incident that haunts Selah or the factions bickering about who’s really in charge. But none of it adds up to much and there doesn’t ultimately seem to be anything at stake. A moment toward the end that would be a game changer in any other film falls flat, feeling more like the status quo for these particular characters.
Also, it’s unclear what to make of the fact that the faction called the Spades, a term that has been used as a slur toward African Americans, is made up entirely of black students. Did Poe, who herself is black, intend it as a reclaiming of the word? The film does not address any racial divisions that may exist at the school, although it’s notable that the headmaster, portrayed by Jesse Williams, is black.
On the positive side, the majority of the actors come off well, delivering performances that never undermine the dramatic material. Simone, best known for the OWN series Greenleaf, has a cool confidence that makes Selah a force with which to be reckoned. Jerome, who won an Emmy for his role in When They See Us, makes the most of his time on screen. O’Connor and Anna Mulvoy Ten make roles that could have been one note into something much more interesting.
Selah and the Spades is not an escapist film by any stretch, so it’s hard to say if it will have an appeal for the high school crowd or adults. But given that it’s premiering on Amazon Prime Video instead of in theaters, it might stand a chance to garner an audience looking for something new.
Selah and the Spades premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on April 17.