At prestigious private school Haldwell, student factions hold power. There are five, among them The Spades, run by Selah (Lovie Simone), the role of her faction is to provide the illicit substances on which the underground parties organised by another faction, covered up by yet another, are run. As a senior, Selah is moving on at the end of the year and there is no apparent successor to her position, until Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) arrives and is taken under her wing.
That summary is the very surface level of what Selah and the Spades is about. Writer/Director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature is impressively original and jammed with ideas, but it also falls interestingly into an emerging subgenre, driven by female directors. These films, like Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, Mitzi Pierone’s Braid, Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills and Jennifer Reeder’s stunning Knives + Skin (as yet unreleased in the UK) all approach stories of young women, often with an oblique coming of age angle, from a position that is, at best, reality-adjacent. Their worlds are off kilter; perhaps out of time, or driven by a stylisation that makes them feel out of sync with the world we recognise. That’s very much present in Selah and the Spades.
The film is most disorienting in its first act, which introduces us to the contained world of the school (where we barely see teachers or lessons) and of the factions. Conferences between the factions take place in formalised language across tables in a field, a cross between a board meeting and a battlefield negotiation, with agreements described as treaties and signed by each leader. This is just an introduction to the film’s politics.
Though Poe is satirising the way teenagers negotiate high school and cliques can appear almost as rival companies; their stock rising and falling within the school, the politics extend far beyond the walls of Haldwell. Very early on, as Paloma takes pictures of the cheerleading squad she is the head of, Selah gives a speech—directed at the new girl but delivered down the barrel of the camera’s lens—about bodily autonomy and how her squad makes their own routines, and decides for themselves how short their skirts should be. This emphasis on taking ownership of your value (especially as a woman and, given the casting, particularly as a woman of colour) is extended when Paloma doesn’t charge Selah for the pictures and the older girl counsels “Value your time”. Another message that hits especially hard comes during an argument between Selah and Paloma when Selah says “The world is screwing us over and you really want to fight about my tone of voice?” That moment, perhaps more than any, hammers home that this is not entirely a film about high school.
Not all of the messages are as forcefully stated, but its effect remains powerful, whether it’s the early conversation that marks Selah as the first explicitly declared asexual protagonist I can remember seeing in a film or Selah assuring Paloma that “You’ll grow calluses”, after the new girl gets more involved in the seedier side of the Spades’ business. The latter is another moment heavy with implied meaning; those calluses are not only going to be on her hands.
From Selah’s point of view, everything is about control, and that’s where Tayarisha Poe’s direction is most felt. At the school, her camera is mostly still and its movement smooth and controlled, because that’s also what Selah is, but when control begins to slip from the character—initially whenever the presence of her mother is felt—it also slips from the camera, moving to a shaky handheld style, even when Selah is seated. Poe creates a compelling world that is at once familiar and strange; the structures and politics of it fairly commonplace, but the expression of them original and offbeat. If things move in a somewhat more generic direction by the third act, that’s not a big problem (and even provides one of the film’s biggest laughs as the usual formality of the field meetings devolves into a shouting match that resembles a school cafeteria)
I have only touched on a few of the characters and ideas in Selah and the Spades here. There’s a lot to unpack in this intelligent and highly promising first feature, but I’ll let you discover the rest yourselves.
Selah and the Spades will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 17th of April.