Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut, “Selah and the Spades” showcases the up-and-coming filmmaker’s immense talent, but the film’s dour tone and derivative plot make it a forgettable affair.
The film, digitally released on Amazon Prime April 17, is set at the fictional Haldwell boarding school, where Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) fearlessly leads a drug-dealing student faction known as the Spades. Selah is the most powerful student in school, but she’s a senior now, which means it’s time for her to name a successor.
Selah quickly meets Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), a new arrival at Haldwell and the school paper’s new photographer. After recruiting Paloma to take incriminating photos of rival faction leader Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), Selah decides to show Paloma the business, quickly including her in all of the Spades’ illicit activities.
It’s a rather familiar setup for a high school drama, and while Poe’s assured direction and visual flairs give it more life than expected, the entire thing reeks of films that came before.
The further the plot unfolds, the more evident the film’s derivative nature becomes. Paloma learns faster than anticipated, and Selah begins to find her new recruit’s once-charming ambition slightly threatening.
Faced with the end of her reign over Haldwell, the pressure of her mother’s high expectations and an array of other high school movie cliches (yes, the school threatens to cancel prom), Selah finds herself fighting to maintain her power.
The film’s organized teenage crime and unconventional tone will draw comparisons to the likes of “Heathers,” “Mean Girls” and Rian Johnson’s (“Knives Out,” “The Last Jedi”) debut “Brick,” but it’s more of an imitation than a worthy successor.
While the similarities to many well-regarded high school movies are apparent, those films succeeded by breaking out of a familiar mold, or at least making fun of it. Poe’s debut is still covering the same ground, only it’s 15 years too late to be original and it’s not a particularly scathing critique.
Still, while much of it plays as a thankless rehashing of well-worn cliches, the film isn’t without its bright spots. Poe’s direction is confident and, to her credit, she attacks the cliched narrative material with a distinct visual style.
The film’s clever color palette blends neon-splashed, A24-inspired party visuals with the ornate fussiness one might expect from a prestigious boarding school. The result is a film that looks better than it has any right to.
The young trio at the film’s center also give promising performances, headlined by Simone (“Share,” “Orange Is the New Black”), who shows admirable range even with the flawed material. Backed by strong turns from O’Connor (“Wetlands”) and “Moonlight” standout Jharell Jerome, who plays Selah’s right-hand man Maxxie, Poe’s film features stronger lead performances than most debuts.
Paradoxically, the film’s biggest roadblock is the creativity and talent behind it. The film’s visual styling and strong performances are too distinctive to be wasted on something this formulaic, but even so, it’s clear that Poe is a filmmaker on the rise.
“Selah and the Spades,” rated R, is now available on Amazon Prime.