It could be that Selah and the Spades, the dark teen drama about cliques at a posh boarding school written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, comes to mean to teens today what the likes of Cruel Intentions or Heathers mean to earlier generations. But honestly, and despite the film’s best efforts, it’s unlikely. For everything it tries to be—rebellious, edgy, intellectual and sharp—it only manages to match the style of the superior films that’ve come before it while lacking their substance.
An opening voice-over introduces us to the five “factions” that run Haldwell Boarding School and the leaders at the top of each; one does all the cheating for students eager to make the grade, while another keeps tabs on the faculty and staff so the teenagers can run their rackets without getting caught. Selah (Lovie Simone), with her right hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), runs the school’s most powerful group, The Spades, in charge of keeping the student body as high, buzzed or otherwise intoxicated as they want to be. Now in her senior year, Selah’s got to figure out a succession plan that will keep her crew in its prime position. She quickly sets her sights on Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a new girl with a photography hobby who doesn’t know enough about the school yet to know how to navigate the factions.
Selah is cool and unflappable, queen of all she sees; she leads the cheer squad and lands good grades on top of it all. With camera in hand, Paloma snaps the cheerleaders during practice early in the film; it’s a striking scene, edited to within an inch of its life as Selah pontificates on the struggles of the modern teenager. In her fierceness, we almost believe her. But as we get a glimpse of what drives Selah, we learn it’s also her biggest weakness; she crumples like a dry leaf under her mother’s unrealistic expectations, delivered with withering precision on each call or visit home. While she bears her mom’s digs and derision, she projects her own high standards on everyone she lords over. As head of another faction, Bobby (Anna Mulvoy Ten) comes the closest to being anywhere near her equal (after being introduced to all the factions, we barely see or hear from any of the others again), but even she pales in comparison to Selah’s larger-than-life presence.
Before long, there’s in-fighting among the factions, Maxxie is distracted from his illicit responsibilities with the squad, and Paloma proves to be a bit more than Selah bargained for, putting all she’s built at risk of falling apart under her watch. All of this is secondary, though, to the world Selah and her counterparts inhabit, as if the outline of the plot was about as far as Poe got before she and her creative team dove headfirst into production design, lighting and the rest. It pays off in…well, in spades, because the film is one of the most visually stunning debut features in recent memory; what its plot lacks in bite, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and vibe. Poe subverts genre expectations with abandon (a standard-issue pop-heavy soundtrack is avoided in favor of a score by ASKA that’s practically eerie), asserting a vision and artistry that bodes very well for future projects. Unfortunately, it’s the story that doesn’t live up to everything built around it.