It’s lonely at the top for Selah (Lovie Simone), now in her senior year at Haldwell Academy when writer/director Tayarisha Poe finds her in her beguiling feature debut, cornering the market at the boarding school for “booze, pills, powder and fun” with her posse the Spades. There are four other factions at the school, but Selah sits at the head of the table, aided by a childhood friend Max (Jharrel Jerome), yet when “the council,” as it’s known, isn’t busy divvying up the school’s drug trade, Selah can often be seen isolating herself, believing any friendships could compromise her power and for this reason, she’s got a problem with graduation on the horizon since there’s no succession plan in place for the Spades.
Just as Selah doesn’t take the easy road to find a replacement, however, eventually setting her sights on an underclassman named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), nor does Poe, quickly disabusing audiences of the notion she’s all that interested in documenting a turf war that normally is the bread-and-butter of films such as these, instead opting for a far more interesting character study of a young African-American woman raised to believe she has to do twice as much as her peers to achieve the same level of success and her single-mindedness has actually stunted her growth. Despite an explosive opening in which Poe cheerily outlines the power structure at Haldwell with Wes Anderson-esque stylistic flourishes, the film soon settles into something far more ruminative as Selah takes Paloma under her wing, yet keeps her at a distance, establishing the terms of their relationship almost immediately by asking the budding photographer, “Can I buy your eye for an hour?” rather than asking her to take a few photos, with the fanciful language as much a power move as implying Paloma is for sale.
The two become close enough for Selah to confess she has no interest in romance or any other typical teenage preoccupations, telling Paloma she understand she’ll see girls crying in the bathroom and fail to understand why anyone would ever put themselves in that position. But in fact, Selah isn’t far from such a breakdown, though it would never involve any love interest, with Poe giving brief glimpses into her relationship with her headstrong mother (Gina Torres), who when told Selah scored a 93 on a recent exam, asks where the seven other points went. The writer/director shows great sophistication in showing how high expectations have made Selah worldly, her own world has become quite small when focused only on her own success, as well as the notion she has to go it alone, and Simone isn’t only magnetic when playing the queen bee, but can often devastate when she lets her guard down, looking as if she’s a young 7 in the presence of her mother rather than a 17-year-old going on 35.
That “Selah and the Spades” is a first feature rather than a sixth only occasionally shows in how Poe will mash up various cinematic styles rather than sticking to just one, but it’s surely a byproduct of the same deconstructive impulse that gives the film such verve, evident in the evocative work of both cinematographer Jomo Fray and the fragmentary score of ASKA that almost feel as if it contradicts Selah in feeling as if it’s pulling the pieces together when she feels she’s already figured things out. As fun as the it becomes to watch Selah scheme, the way in which Poe’s grand design for her emerges over time is extremely satisfying, clearing the room to really watch her think as doubts set in and while you hope she’ll be able to get out of her own head, she won’t be leaving yours anytime soon.