It wasn't long into watching Selah and the Spades that I found myself mumbling the words "the perks of NOT being a wallflower," a not so thinly veiled reference to one of my more beloved high school meets coming-of-age meets rites life films and a film that kept coming to mind as I became further and further immersed in this terrific debut from writer/director Tayarisha Poe.
The stories are different, that's for sure, but there's a rhythm of life that is shared by both films that is practically undeniable and this is most likely why I found myself hooked by Selah and the Spades from beginning to end.
The film is set inside the walls of the ultra-luxe Haldwell School, an east coast boarding school where five distinct factions rule the school and Selah (Lovie Simone), the top o' the line ruler of the top o' the line ruling faction the Spades, does whatever it takes to ensure she remains in power during her senior year.
While Selah and the Spades isn't without its uneven moments, Poe's grasp of the world that she creates is impeccable; her understanding of high school politics makes Election look like child's play and this understanding is brought beautifully to life by ASKA's creative, atmospheric original music and Jomo Fray's lilting and twisting lensing that leaves us unsettled but never ungrounded.
Lovie Simone (Greenleaf) shines as the ever so complex Selah, a brash and seemingly confident 17-year-old on the outside who tends to wilt under the microscopic lens of her domineering mother while shying away from anything resembling a committed relationship whether it be with her bestie, Maxxie (Emmy Award-winner Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us) or the new girl, Paloma (Celeste O'Connor, Irresistible You), whom she eyes as a possible replacement for her once she graduates either because Paloma reminds her of herself or, much more likely, because she doesn't.
Selah and the Spades is an unusual beast of a film, another trait it shares with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, with the film taking place less in the classrooms and far more in the hallways where relationships are formed and negotiations are made. Jomo Fray's camera practically spins around the campus, always finding Selah but only occasionally stopping to rest on her most intriguing, quietly revealing moments whether stabbing its way through her darkness or discovering that ever so slight shard of light that seems to briefly escape from her before she seems to pull it back inside her. Simone avoids any hint of caricature for Selah, whose role atop the campus's merry mayhem making fraction includes more than a little dealing of cocaine and acid with a piercing placidity that Walter White would envy. It's a placidity that crackles and energizes the screen even as Selah herself remains remarkably calm.
Poe has long been recognized as a gifted storyteller, identified by Filmmaker Magazine in 2015 as one of the "25 New Faces" and a 2016 recipient of Sundance Institute's Knight Foundation Fellowship. Raised in West Philly, Poe was drawn at an early age to storytelling and believes that all stories are inherently multi-sensory and multi-dimension - these qualities are, indeed, on full display throughout Selah and the Spades and their success is a huge reason that the film so successfully paints an observational, unskewed portrayal of the charismatic yet callous Selah and the world in which she survives and, at least to some degree, thrives.
Alongside Simone's fantastic performance, relative newcomer Celeste O'Connor, set to appear in the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife, gives a breakthrough performance as Selah's protege Paloma. Paloma is as much teacher as she is student for Selah, though it's never quite clear if Selah herself is willing to learn the lessons that Paloma has to offer. O'Connor's Paloma is different from Selah, yet they exist in the same universe and O'Connor quietly yet masterfully captures the bonds that brought them together and that undeniable friction that keeps them from ever being a full-on click. It's a tremendous performance that lingers in your mind long after the film's closing credits have scrolled by.
Given the task of playing what is often a rather thankless, one-note role as the BFF to someone who doesn't really deserve a BFF, Jharrel Jerome adds layers and nuances to flesh everything out and give the relationship between Maxxie and Selah just the right hint of emotional resonance.
Selah and the Spades had its world premiere at Sundance and its successful festival run included Poe picking up the "Directors to Watch" prize at last year's Palm Springs International Film Festival and the film picking up the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Blackstar Film Festival. Picked up by Amazon Studios, Selah and the Spades is set to start streaming on April 17th and is a tremendous showcase for the entertaining and engaging storytelling and filmmaking of Tayarisha Poe.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic