To be a young girl at the top of her game means to be in an exhausting and eternal war for control, at least for the sovereign title character of filmmaker Tayarisha Poe’s rousing debut “Selah and the Spades”. Heathers, move over: Meet Selah Summers, a 17-year-old Lady Macbeth who worked hard to climb the social ladder and is suspicious of life after high school.
As a character study, “Selah and the Spades” is more than a requiem for a mean girl. Think the stylistic bite of “Brick” meets the sophisticated world structure of “Rushmore” with a feminist perspective of the fourth wall and two young black female protagonists, and you have “Selah”. The Sundance Discovery begins streaming on Amazon Friday and is aimed at an audience hungry for new voices and fresh talent.
Played with a clever duality from Lovie Simone (“Greenleaf”), Selah has good reasons to stay on high alert. At a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania, where the student body is divided into five cliques, each led by rulers with an iron fist, the popular and ruthless queen bee heads both the Cheer Squad and the Spades, the campus “faction” that co-operates illegal substances and is embroiled in a power struggle with the Bobbies theater club.
Then there is the introverted new girl Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a day student and budding photographer who was ripped out of her shell when Selah decides that she should pass the torch on and chooses the second grader as her protégé. An intense bond is formed, which Selah’s BFF ship with her oldest confidante and right-hand man, Maxxie (“Moonlight” and “When They See Us” star Jharrell Jerome), whose desire for a social life of her own, divides the close-knit one Operation of the Spades in danger.
Based on the die-hard gangster noir tropes and the hopeful heroines of the teen rom-coms, Poe’s unique alchemy weaves a world in which teenagers in the relatively adult-free Haldwell School – led by an enthusiastic, eyed but unhappy headmaster (Jesse Williams) – are hybrids from both genres. You are callous and cruel, dreamy and carefree, trapped in the daydreams, politics and melodrama of life at 17.
Though its narrative dynamics occasionally stutter, “Selah” builds a fascinating social ecosystem, peppered with colorful supporting characters like the often angry Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), the boss of the bobbies, and Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall), an accomplished classmate of ambiguous loyalty operating on the fringes of factions. You jump off the screen as the movie’s plot moves towards the defining event in any teenage movie: an all-consuming prom that brings Shakespearean betrayal and buried stories to the fore.
In her debut feature film “Selah and the Spades”, the author / director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in a heightened representation of youth politics.
By nature, Poe understands the intensities that fuel even platonic teenage female friendships and add richness and tenderness to the deepening dynamic between the two girls. But the filmmaker is far more interested in exploring the intricate Selah than exploring the growth of an increasingly confident Paloma who promises to be a very different kind of leader for the Spades than her mentor. Nuances of race and class inherent in the hyperprivileged school environment are similarly hinted at, but not the focus.
Instead, Poe and cinematographer Jomo Fray, whose lens wears a subtle naturalism, examine Selah’s innermost fears and fears and sneak in from afar to see the silent despair she hides from close friends and foes. When the real Selah comes into view through Paloma’s adoring eyes, her inner life is beautifully accentuated by the inharmonious, jazzy and clinking score by the composer Aska Matsumiya.
What is behind Selah’s need to rule through fear, this harsh appearance and the panic that is constantly seething beneath the surface? Scenes at home with her disapproving mother (Gina Torres) explain the pressures that Selah exerts and passes on to others, and the desperation with which she holds onto the social currency that she has amassed. But the show stopper comes early in an overarching, syncopated monologue that she delivers when she meets Paloma, in which Poe holds the flag of her intention with intuition and fresh vision.
A short skirt, a choreographed dance, the ferocity of a look: just a few small ways in which young women can claim some autonomy for themselves in a world that tries to control their decisions, their bodies and every movement, says Selah . She stares straight into the camera, a fire in her eyes carried by seas of trust. “When you’re 17, you have that control wherever you can and hold on for your life,” she says. “Because they always try to take it away from you, don’t they?”
But while Selah learns the hard way, it’s lonely at the top. The control it seeks has its price. So Poe’s parting gifts to them are their spades; and a promise of redemption and relief to the selahs of the world.
“Selah and the Spade”
Valuation: R, for adolescent drug content and language
Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes
To play: Available April 17th on Prime Video