Selah and the Spades

Written and Directed by: Tayarisha Poe

Starring: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams

Thinking about the cutthroat competitive nature of the prep school featured in Tayarisha Poe’s “Selah and the Spades,” evoked memories of Peter Weir’s intellectual “Dead Poets Society,” Daniel Petrie, Jr.’s horrifying “Toy Soldiers,” or the antics and hijinks of John Landis’ “Animal House,” or even more recently, Peyton Reed’s exceptionally composed “Bring it On.”

As Selah, Lovie Simone is an exceptionally composed senior, almost meticulous to a fault. And she has good reason to be. As the head of an underground drug ring and the leader of the five factions that make up the high school’s ‘activities committee,’ she is student, businessperson and mediator.

As a senior though, she must also think about her legacy. To wit, she gains the attention of Celeste O’Connor’s Paloma, a recent transfer who has problems of her own. More specifically, Selah takes a keen interest in Paloma’s attention to detail in the photos she takes. At first, Selah doesn’t trust Paloma, having had issues with her last protégé. Here Ms. Poe builds both characters as they begin a journey together.

Still unsure of her decision to trust the future of the underground in Paloma’s hand, Selah puts Paloma through numerous trials and tribulations: “is she worthy to lead the factions.”  Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight”) is one of Selah’s most trusted confidants and quickly earns Paloma’s trust as well.

Poe keeps the audience’s interest on Selah as Paloma begins to ascend, a very astute and correct aspect from which to tell Selah’s story and to keep it as composed as our protagonist is.

There is a grace with which Ms. Simone approached Selah and the way Ms. Poe wrote the character. She has the best attributes of the intellect to know how to run a scam underneath the noses of the prep school’s administrator who is much more interested in keeping Paloma on the straight and narrow, lest her hard-earned scholarship is placed in further jeopardy.

Selah must also walk a fine line between keeping up her appearances as the campus’s most powerful student without attracting attention. A particularly hard-hitting scene happens early in the film between she and her mother (Gina Torres) when her studies begin to show a strain. This drives Paloma to become so much more important to Selah and in that regard, Ms. Poe strengthens the story as a bridge between two generations.

“Selah and the Spades” strength is in its characters and the third act where Selah and Paloma come to blows is truly where the film shines. Ms. Poe smartly balances the two characters once again as the ‘Spades’ are laid bare: the unvarnished truth shall be spoken and heard for all of eternity. However, the character development overshadows the storyline and the film teeters on falling more into the realm of anarchy.

“Selah and the Spades” works through the unique balance between the two main characters. It is the truth and honesty between the characters, and their respective performances, that draws us in and keeps us riveted.