To introduce her audience to the world of the Haldwell Boarding School in Selah and the Spades, debut writer and director Tayarisha Poe presents the five factions that low-key run the school. Each faction serves their own purpose, with names like “The Bobbies” or “The Prefects,” that not only boost the power of the faction leaders, but improve the quality of living for the student body. But, as the film’s opening narration states, this is not a story about the Mafia-lite factions of this high school. This is a story about Selah (Lovie Simone), the leader of “The Spades,” member of the Spirit Squad and along with her co-head Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), supplier of illicit substances to Haldwell. As Poe’s story goes on, the question becomes why Selah and the Spades wasn’t just a story about this one leader, but about this intricate set of high school hierarchy as well.
With her time at Haldwell coming to a close, Selah has to decide who will take up her throne once she’s gone. Her possible successor comes in sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who Selah takes under her wing and teaches her the ways of the Spades. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, Selah states the theme of the film directly to Paloma, flanked by her Spirit Squad as they practice one of their routines, remarking that as a 17-year-old women, one has to take control of her life at all costs. But with Paloma catching on quickly and Maxxie possibly not as trustworthy as she once thought, Selah has to decide how to keep her house in order.
After setting up this school full of faction rivalries, devious planning and years of history, Poe decides to only focus on a small part of that by centering the story exclusively on Selah and Paloma. By restraining her story to this tiny sliver, is restricts the power of what we see. For example, the Spades often go to a dangerous part of Philadelphia to get their drugs, which is implied, but never seen. Or quite often, the Spades will punish certain students by beating them up, which has caught the attention of the dean (Jesse Williams). Yet even though these slight deviations present the idea of high risk, they aren’t felt in the main narrative. Selah and the Spades hints at some threat from the school administration or from Selah’s overbearing mother, but instead, Poe wants the threats to come from the classmates, which also doesn’t work thanks to the film’s narrow focus.
Unfortunately, Poe’s spotlight on the Spades isn’t all that enthralling either, as the friction between Selah, Maxxie and Paloma is only slightly more tense than a CW teen drama, and far more humorless than that. Poe – as she states right at the beginning – wants this to be a story about Selah, and that’s primarily what this is. Simone’s understated performance as Selah presents a woman who has the power she craves in a world where she often feels powerless, and doesn’t want to lose that or the legacy that she’s created. Yet in focusing on Selah, Maxxie and Paloma also fall by the wayside. Maxxie is little more than a forgetful, love-struck teenager – a shame since Jerome can do so much more than this – and not much is known of Paloma, except she’s a lackey who relishes in the idea of being more. Even in the scenes between Selah, Maxxie, and Paloma, Poe doesn’t quite know how to make these sequences pop or illicit the needed tension for this story to work.
Which is all a shame, considering this world that Poe has crafted – which is a lot like Dear White People, Anne Rose Holmer’s The Fits and Rian Johnson’s debut, Brick – is full of untapped possibilities. Poe certainly has an eye for shot composition, as can be seen in the aforementioned dance sequence, or in the neon-filled parties these students throw after school hours. There’s absolutely a promising in filmmaker in Poe, and she’s packed her with great young actors. But like many of the students at Haldwell, Selah and the Spades is unfortunately full of misplaced potential.
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