'Selah and the Spades': Film Review | Sundance 2019

An unconventional yet quietly confident debut feature.

Tayarisha Poe's debut feature is an immersive look at the cunning yet charming head of one of five underground factions at a prestigious boarding school.

The debut feature Selah and the Spades from writer-director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in the world of Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), the cunning yet charming senior head of the Spades, one of five underground factions that dominate social life at a prestigious boarding school. Like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom or even Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, it’s a film that takes the world of its teenage characters seriously, but doesn’t feel like a YA drama. Quietly confident in its unconventional yet clear point of view, Selah and the Spades signals a bright future for a promising young filmmaker.

Selah runs the Spades, the campus headquarters for drug and alcohol sales, with a tight grip and a detailed ledger (Selah is pronounced "Sell-uh," after all). Throughout the film, we see her seamlessly deploy charm, intelligence and manipulation to maintain her position, while underneath, the cancer of perfectionism eats away at her.

The opening scene, a trailer-like rundown of each of the five factions and who runs them, feels a bit tacked on, like a suggestion from a producer worried that without it the movie will lose people. But this tonal misstep aside, what’s so enjoyable about the pic is getting lost in an authentic new world with its own unique language and norms — a genuine subculture. Full-grown adults may have an initial moment of “C’mon, guys, it’s really not that deep — call me when you have a mortgage to pay” as the ensemble cast so convincingly captures Gen Z angst and earnestness, but the world is so well-crafted that it’s quite easy to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. 

The film’s sharp visuals reflect a strong collaboration between Poe and her cinematographer Jomo Fray (HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness). We meet Selah’s protegee Paloma (standout Celeste O’Connor) through her hair, a glorious blowout of natural curls that fill the frame as we follow her down a hallway and see her face for the first time only after several beats. The sound design also offers a fresh take on voiceover and score placement, leading us into and taking us out of scenes in all kinds of interesting ways; it feels like we’re living inside of Selah’s head, without being dragged there.

Boarding schools are typically viewed as majority-white spaces, and for good reason, but Poe’s Haldwell School is revealed primarily through the lens of its black and brown students, another way the movie quietly but clearly asserts itself. Real-life secret societies at elite preparatory high schools and colleges have been taken up by films like Dead Poets Society and the Harry Potter franchise, and Poe smartly reimagines this genre from her perspective as a black woman who graduated from elite New Jersey boarding institution the Peddie School. Through Selah’s tense relationship with her mother, the pic also portrays how young people internalize the pressures parents and societal forces thrust upon them, and how that fuels their need for the rebellious outlets that the factions provide.

Poe clearly wants to counter the widespread cinematic crutch that the most important thing to a teenage girl is getting a boy to like her. Selah is utterly uninterested in romance; instead, it’s Selah and Paloma’s intense platonic friendship that drives the movie. That said, O’Connor’s Paloma does play like she’s a bit in love with an uninterested Selah, but this feels accidental. Selah’s explanation of why she doesn’t date her best friend Maxxie (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome) will elicit a knowing laugh from women well into their 30s and 40s.

Poe smartly asked Jesse Williams, who plays Headmaster Banton, to grow out his beard to distract the audience from his face (he’s got a pretty attractive one, in case you haven’t heard), and the actor delivers a decent performance as a stodgy new administrator who desperately wants to be viewed as cool by his students. The film hilariously captures how clueless the school principals of the world can be about what really matters to teenagers and how to reach them.

The Hebrew word "Selah" loosely translates as "stop and listen" in the Psalms of the Old Testament. Selah and the Spades is the kind of movie that makes you lean in to do just that.

Production companies: Argent Pictures, Novel Pictures, Secret Engine
Cast: Lovie Simone, Celeste O'Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Henry Hunter Hall, Evan Roe, Francesca Noel
Writer-director: Tayarisha Poe
Producers: Lauren Mcbride, Drew Houpt, Lucas Joaquin, Jill Ahrens, Tayarisha Poe
Executive producers: Ryan Ahrens, Ben Renzo, Michael Finley, Drew Brees, Tony Parker, Derrick Brooks, Jennifer Westphal, Nancy Stephens Rosenthal, Julie Parker Benello, Chaz Ebert, Alex Scharfman, Terence Nance
Co-executive producers: David Chan, Stephanie DeVaan, Gottfried Tittiger, Janet Tittiger, Ken Whitney, Liz Whitney, Alexandra Renzo
Director of photography: Jomo Fray
Production designer: Valeria De Felice
Editor: Kate Abernathy
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Casting: Jessica Daniels
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Sales: ICM

89 minutes