“Selah and the Spades” premieres on Amazon Prime Video beginning April 17. First-time writer and director Tayarisha Poe demonstrates a keen understanding of the impact of style and visual perspective as she tells the story of five factions of students at a prestigious boarding school navigating the final semester before graduation.
The story centers upon Selah (Lovie Simone), the powerful leader of her group, The Spades, which provides drugs in all forms to the students. Always at odds with The Bobbys lead by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), the other three groups seem to be unimportant, only filling space with bodies at parties and in the background. Selah’s right hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) is but a puppet, following her every order. Feeling a sense of urgency in finding her new protege, she encounters newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) and begins to groom her to take her place after graduation. It is at this point that Poe delves into the complexly emotional state of female relationships, jealousy, and insecurities.
While Poe certainly has an eye for storytelling, there is a constant sense of being on the brink of going beyond the superficial element. It never quite teeters over to that side, unfortunately. Yes, this is visually creative, but there needed to be more dialogue, more personality developments, and more of a story arc earlier. The tonal shifts were off-putting as Poe seemed to struggle with which direction she was going and the overall point of the film. Is it a female empowerment film? An expose on how young women are perceived and their lack of control? Or is it a typical teen representation of drug usage and mimicking the underground world of drugs in an unprotected environment? The answers aren’t clear.
In many teen movies, the adults are clueless and Poe accentuates this as the headmaster (Jesse Williams) is always two steps behind as he attempts to discover who’s coordinating these huge parties. This becomes an insignificant side story as Selah struggles with her relationship with her perfectionistic mother and her competition to retain her leadership while covering the blemish on her reputation from two years earlier. This “blemish” referred to throughout the film is the intriguing through line in this story. And thankfully, the finale is worth the wait with this question finally answered.
The less than cohesive story creates pacing issues as it stutters, starts, and stalls repeatedly, however the power of Simone elevates every scene. She’s a force, strong and unwavering, even when her character becomes unsteady, questioning her own choices and values. Ten’s one-dimensional performance gives the film the feel of an overacted high school play, but O’Connor exudes a natural comfort on camera even as she hides behind one. It is the relationship between Paloma and Selah that is most interesting, but it develops too little and too late.
The artistry in this film is an element that frequently overshadows the story and performances as it pulls you into this surreal world. The dialogue-lite film relies too heavily upon the artistry exhibiting a cinema verite feel. The cinematographer finds unique angles allowing us to drink in the beauty of the shot as it captures light and color with all its glorious reflections and refractions. Perhaps it is this light and how the camera plays with it that is actually a mirror image into Selah’s soul, her future, and her past.
Poe misses a few too many marks in storytelling to make “Selah and the Spades” a must-see film as the premise remains too muddy, meandering along, trying to find that final waterfall at the end. Simone’s brilliance on camera, and Poe’s visual artistry, however, makes it clear that they both have a bright future ahead.
Reel Talk rating: 2 stars